A certain hunger for Chelsea Summers – The Irish Times
Using only one point of view in a novel can increase intensity, creating immediate intimacy between character and reader. We learn to see the world through their eyes. This approach is particularly effective when the character is someone who lives outside the confines of society, as is the charming sociopathic narrator in Chelsea G Summers’ debut novel, A Certain Hunger.
Dorothy Daniels, a well-known American food critic turned serial killer, has been serving a life sentence for a year in New York’s Bedford Hills prison, after decades on the run for murder – and cannibalism. Over 19 titled chapters, with titles such as Corpse Reviver #2, Banana Bread, and Silage, Dorothy writes her story from prison, desiring, like all good sociopaths, to go down in history for her terrible crimes.
Summers is having a lot of fun with her character. Dorothy is a 6ft tall redhead whose voracious appetite, for sex, food, power and fame translates into plenty of stories of gossip and drama in a range of brightly colored settings – a college of liberal arts in Vermont, a year abroad in Italy, the quiet nightlife of the 1980s in Boston and, by contrast, the hedonism of the 1990s in New York.
The tone is satirical throughout, sustaining plenty of ridiculous twists. It makes sense that the book was first published in America as an Audible Original. The sardonic and confident voice is perfectly suited for monologue. This decision to tell rather than show sometimes dulls the dramatic impact, but for the most part the story is kept afloat thanks to the biting humor and Summer’s ability to craft a decent sentence.
On one of many early New York City evenings, Dorothy takes a moment to survey the city: “As I strode out into the swirling dawn, the sunlight began to slip like white lies between the skyscrapers.” Earlier in the book, she moves to be near her dying mother, “the big black roses of cancer blooming in her lungs”. These chapters, which trace the character’s history as a child, teenager and student, are among the most touching and compelling in the book.
At 12 years old, Dorothy imagines organizing a sumptuous dinner for all her future lovers: “I wanted these men to desire me because, although I did not know the precise shape and weight of lust, I knew that lust was power and I wanted power even then. Her mother, meanwhile, is a brilliant, Francophile chef, with strong Julia Child connotations (she even uses her catchphrase), one of many foodie nods throughout.
These dynamic first chapters don’t quite merge with the rest of the story. Summers is careful to present Dorothy’s path to the murderous cannibal as progressive – the first murder is an accident, the second for revenge until it becomes a kind of addiction – but there is always a lag in the tone and style, where the early chapters feel real, like lived experience, and the latter entirely fictional.
Other issues include a tendency to summarize an event before backtracking to flesh out (pun intended) the details. Some readers won’t make it past the first few pages; there’s murder, cannibalism, graphic sex, lots of C-words, and most nauseating of all, Summer’s delight in mixing sex and food metaphors. Here’s a sample (not the worst by far), where Dorothy describes semen”[drying] on my belly like donut icing.
Others will revel in the campness, gore, brashness and clever gender reversal at the heart of A Certain Hunger. Here is Bret Easton Ellis in heels. One can’t help but imagine the outcome of a date between Patrick Bateman and Dorothy Daniels, where a chainsaw would be no match for the clever and varied methods employed by the latter throughout the book.
These escapades are punctuated with striking and comic lines: “Giovanni. I killed him and ate his liver. It was an accident, of course. There’s the feeling of a brave writer pushing things to their limits. Nothing is sacred: “I knew from an early age that motherhood was a cage that I never wanted to live in. The kids make me turn on the oven and grab the rosemary.
Summers is an American freelance journalist whose work focuses on sex, politics, technology, fashion and culture. She is a former scholar and professor with a doctorate in 18th century British literature. His work has appeared in VICE, Fusion, Hazlitt, New Republic, Racked and the Guardian. She divides her time between New York and Stockholm. Reading A Certain Hunger reminded this reviewer of a line from Stephanie Danler’s bestseller, Sweetbitter: “Appetite is not a symptom, it’s a state of being.” Summers takes this idea and goes awry with it. The result is an exuberant and shameless satire of a woman’s insatiable appetite. It won’t fall easily. Enjoy your lunch!