Sweet Fruit, Sour Land by Rebecca Ley
Sandstone Press, July 2018
Feminism, food scarcity, and environmental exhaustion make for a timely read
“When a wealthy client visits Mathilde’s dressmaking shop, she finds herself drawn into the only surviving circle of luxury left in a barren London. Attending parties offers a welcome escape from life governed by ration cards and a strictly enforced child policy. Here she meets enigmatic government minister, George, and piano-playing Jaminder, with whom an intense friendship blossoms. As their relationship grows stronger, George’s grip on Mathilde tightens, as she tries to discover where the illicit food is coming from, where women disappear to, and what price she must pay to avoid bringing a child into a cruel, ever-changing world.”
The plot of Sweet Fruit, Sour Land by Rebecca Ley, debut novelist previously shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo essay prize, unfolds simply and with ease. While the book is rich in sensual and philosophical musing, there’s a relative lack of context on the political regime the characters live in, which helps build an oppressive atmosphere where citizens fearful of surveillance keep their heads down, overseas communication is cut off, and families are missing members. While some live off memories, others find days before hunger too painful to dwell upon. At times, it’s not entirely clear why fishing or small scale gardening doesn’t take the place of industrialised food supply, particularly when Mathilde and Jaminder move north; being able to source only oats to eat tips the balance to implausible, and the explanation that the crop doesn’t rely upon dissemination by animals begs more questions as to what happened to them.
It’s the lack of food, or lack in general, which allows for some of the most memorable passages. Mathilde has thrown away her family cookbooks, keeping only one: what use are they now in this land of scarcity? Anything new which appears at market, such as gooseberries, are both a welcome interjection into their meagre, routine diet and a source of concern. But in her dalliance with George and his inner circle connections she suddenly has access to foods that she has so rarely encountered she’s not sure she ever tasted them. The pleasure they bring opens up new worlds to her.
“I dug into the crumble in front of me. My mouth soured as I tasted its sweetness, dense and sticky. The peach I held in my hand became the sweetness in my mouth. If my tongue and fingertips were connected it was because of peaches, if my body knew each part of itself and recognised another part, it was because of peaches. If I were a human; a sentient, knowing being, that was one thing, not several, I knew it because of peaches.”
Similarly, a lack of electricity, limited to one hour per night (when citizens can afford it), lends itself to the eeriness of exiting the underused subway, with doors that have to be rammed open, into dark streets. Switching the lights on in George’s apartment and contrasting his lifestyle with the lack faced by the general population is eerier still.
Women of childbearing age and ability are under great pressure to conceive. Some wonder whether it might be strategically better for them to comply. Beyond thirty, intervention can be forceful, and contraception is contraband. Women who accept help from lovers with access to medical supply take the risk of being compromised. While emancipation from bodily constraints is interesting, the subject been explored before in fiction, most notably in The Handmaid’s Tale. Where it really shines in Sweet Fruit, Sour Land is where it intersects with politics of elite centralisation. Matilde discovers women able to bear child are traded with a foreign country in population decline, in return for their fresh food, enjoyed only by the elite at lavish parties. It’s a sharp critique of a hierarchical society ordered by the whims of those at the top, with ordinary women of lesser means facing the greatest consequences.
The country may be headed by the shadowy Mrs P (known as ‘auntie’), and there are few male characters other than George who looms large, but it’s a man’s world, with inequality at root. “England isn’t eating” was a slogan used by Mrs P to rise to power. Mathilde glimpses a group of women, one beaten, bearing the protest slogan “England still isn’t eating,” before she is whisked away in George’s car. Women who protest are protesting against the regime of a female leader and the privileged who serve under her.
Mathilde and Jaminder in their escape north together sees them settle into a family unit. Their relationship is not clearly defined; Jaminder admires and kisses Mathilde, who doesn’t welcome physical touch, but other than sexual intimacy their bond is emotional and trusted. It mirrors the closeness of Gloria and Gwendolyn, two elite women who also faced separation by men. The love expressed by the women among themselves is itself a subversion, and key to Mathilde and Jaminder’s will to survive.
“…love in your terms is something wildly different and painstaking and debilitating and selfish as compared with how we love. Family is something you never understood, and that’s why you ripped Gwendolyn from Gloria, and the women went where they went, and why you thought a policy to increase the population was admirable, and why you misunderstood the fundamental nature of all humans; why you will never understand that family is not something you can force people into or buy. Why you will never understand how we need our little packs, and our groups, how they are essential to our survival; ad how family is something that is born from love.”
The food scarcity and environmental exhaustion themes of Sweet Fruit, Sour Land are timely in an era of Brexit and climate change, and the book is peppered with unusual, thought-provoking and at times poetic insight into memory, sense, questioning the status quo, including what feminist resistance looks like. I’lI look forward to reading Rebecca Ley’s next novel.