This month’s Book Addiction feature is A Taste for Nightshade by Martine Bailey. I had no idea what this book was about at first, and freely admit that I picked it up purely on the fascinating title. The cover is quite appealing as well. When I read the jacket description and realized the book is described as a ‘culinary crime novel’, I was hooked.
A Taste for Nightshade is written in alternative viewpoints of two immensely different characters. Grace is an artistic, gentle, and rather timid heiress who is infatuated with her new husband, Michael. As the story unfolds, his selfishness becomes more apparent, and it’s little surprise that he married Grace for her money. Together, they live in a shadowy, run-down house called Delafosse Hall, a setting which enhances the distinct Gothic flavour of the novel.
The other main character is Mary Jebb, also known as Peg, whose nerves of steel, flair for trickery, and rough background provide a vivid contrast to Grace. Mary is also a talented cook, especially for delicacies like pastries and cakes. Mary has her own reasons for taking on the job of cook at Delafosse Hall; she has a dark past with Michael, whom she once swindled, and she was subsequently shipped to Botany Bay as a criminal upon his testimony. Before leaving, she sends him a ‘Penny Heart’, a smoothed copper penny engraved by convicts for messages for loved ones to remember them by. The book was apparently partly inspired by Penny Hearts, which were commonly sent by convicts at the time. Mary’s Penny Heart carries a hint of a threat:
Though chains hold me fast,
As the years pass away,
I swear on this heart
To find you one day
As Mary’s horrific experiences as a transported criminal are gradually revealed, the reader can easily understand her desire for vengeance, and admire her fierceness and tenacity, even while being fond of Grace and pitying her for not knowing the deception going on in her kitchen.
At first, I hoped Mary and Grace would team up against Michael. Instead, I read, enraptured, to the discovery of a plot twist that I didn’t see coming. I should have, perhaps – all the clues were laid carefully, but with enough subtlety that I didn’t pay proper attention to them. I enjoyed the surprise.
One of my favourite aspects of the novel is the contrast between Grace and Mary. They’re utterly different, and yet I didn’t find myself favouring one over the other in the story, and I genuinely hoped they could both have a happy ending. I also loved the Gothic feel of the story, and the historical recipes that mark the beginning of each chapter.
From the jacket description:
Manchester 1787. When budding young criminal Mary Jebb swindles Michael Croxon’s brother with a blank pound note, he chases her into the night and sets in motion a train of sinister events. Condemned to seven years of transportation to Australia, Mary sends him a ‘Penny Heart’-a token of her vow of revenge.
Two years later, Michael marries naïve young Grace Moore. Although initially overjoyed at the union, Grace quickly realizes that her husband is more interested in her fortune than her company. Lonely and desperate for companionship, she turns to her new cook to help mend her ailing marriage. But Mary Jebb, shipwrecked, maltreated, and recently hired, has different plans for the unsuspecting owners of Delafosse Hall.
A Taste for Nightshade is a thrilling historical novel that combines recipes, mystery and a dark struggle between two desperate women, sure to appeal to fans of Sarah Waters and Carolly Erickson.
I also came across an interesting interview with the author, if anyone is interested in further reading. Definitely check this book out if you like stories with elegant prose, complex female characters, a Gothic feel, and reading things with such good food descriptions that they make you hungry.