Andrew Meehan’s novel One Star Awake is one to enjoy.
This quick-step tale involves Eva Hand, a curious woman who works as a kitchen porter deep in the heart of Paris.
She has a habit of doing everything fast – the peeling of potatoes, the slicing of onions, the making of stock from the bones of fish. And she has garnered the nickname of The Dishwasher, or La Plongeuse in the native tongue (it’s almost worth reading for the discovery of that word alone).
We soon discover that Eva is suffering from a trauma-induced form of amnesia. She doesn’t know how she has found herself working in this kitchen, just as she can’t remember where she lived before this, her previous occupations, her parents, if they are dead or alive. It’s almost as if she just materialised in the Gravy restaurant some six months ago and has drifted along with it ever since.
But things begin to change for her when, queuing in a patisserie called the Bertrand Rose, she spots a familiar face, a man who she instinctively realises is of importance to her situation.
He is there and gone in a moment and, immediately, Eva is obsessing over this red-haired Australian, this man who wears a T-shirt with the print of an eagle on the back – Eagleback, as he begins to be known to her.
Eva goes in search of Eagleback, hoping he will somehow reveal things about her past. It is the start of a journey of self-discovery, in a pretty unorthodox fashion – trespassing, begging, befriending the caretaker in Eagleback’s building and taking refuge in a cellar with the “most violently epileptic barrage of smells”.
There are also her visits with Hippolyte, the offbeat psychiatrist who is attempting to understand her condition. What caused the memory loss? Is it as bad as she claims it is? Does she really want to find her way back from it?
Because there’s a freedom offered by her condition, a rebirth even. The things a person might take for granted now hold a childlike wonder.
Eva is confused by the concept of peanut butter. She is fascinated by the lice in her bed. She lends money to the gypsies who beg on the street. And the more she finds out about the old Eva, the heavier the question seems to weigh on her: might it be easier to forget?
The narrative is broken up by Eva’s diary, snippets of events involving people who seem like strangers to her now, an affair with Paris or an intense relationship with a married man, times that feel so removed from her current state they may just as easily be fantasy.
There is also Daniel’s story, the man she is currently seeing – sommelier, part-time model, needy, and in some ways just as lost as Eva.
Daniel is running away from the person he once was, but his portrayal of a man who longs for the elemental things in life is flawed. Unlike Eva, he still lives in a building close to Saint Sulpice, “a million light years” from the “concrete bunker” she resides in.
Daniel claims to want the best for Eva. He offers her advice.
“To avoid people who use lunch as a verb,
“To avoid yawning in people’s faces,
“To avoid fear, to take it and fold it and sail it down the Seine.”
But he is a man who falls in love at the drop of a hat and this situation with Eva provides an opportunity to try to control or mould this woman into an ideal partner.
The re-schooling of Eva in the ways of the world gives so much playfulness to the language throughout the book. Her curiosity spins new words and novel reasoning, her delight in the simplest of pleasures gives a lightness and humour.
Food and wine; it continually weaves through place and character too. It is there at the most destructive times in Eva’s life, expensive restaurants, the finest of ingredients, the excess that is so far removed from what she actually needs.
The act of eating or not-eating plays a big role in capturing so much about the Paris way of life, but there is also this notion of plenty verses famishment, not just for the likes of the homeless who quarrel over resting places beneath the bridges of the Seine, but also with Eva’s memories, how the need to find herself is like a hunger, how a want to remember comes over her, only to dissipate with each morsel fed.
And those around Eva have a greed for her, this person who is completely free of convention and the burden that comes with years of conforming. They want to be part of her life more than they let on, but to contain a character like Eva might well be the same as attempting to control a butterfly with a length of string.
When free from the anchor that is her work in the kitchen, we see the true chaos in Eva’s condition. She likes to run. A chance to take in Paris. “Hoofing it along Mathurin Moreau.” She runs “from people and things and situations and, above all, information that could have led somewhere other than Eagleback”.
That urgency is mirrored in the pace of the book. It doesn’t let up. Nor does it fall into a predicable stride. It is clever and inventive and has elements of a thriller, but an unconventional sort.
And even then, the variety and eccentricities of the characters and the language are enough to keep you coming back for more, even if there wasn’t a promise of a payoff. Still, as her memories slowly come back, this disassembling of the old Eva and the reassembling of the new, the truth of her past revealed, it does make the payoff all the more appetising.
Beautiful, tragic at times, and original, One Star Awake is one I highly recommend.
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