The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C Morais

by |August 14, 2010

Pity the poor publisher. How many books brought to the market actually make it and continue on to have long shelf lives? Maybe 20 per cent? Probably less. That means a lot of books are one-hit wonders, while others sink like a stone. Of course, others are so damn good that you know from the minute you read them that they are going to create a sensation.

I was lucky enough to get proof copies of Room, The Long Song, Trespass, The Slap, Parrot and Olivier in America and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet before publication (having been earmarked by their publishers as worthy of pushing). They were all exceptional in their ways, and they have all ended up on this year’s Man Booker long list. Then there are others that are just going to capture the public’s imagination. They may not get nominations for the big prizes but they are compelling enough to be supported by a marketing campaign. And others are going to be slow burners – hand-sells that get passed from reader to reader with personal recommendations before reaching critical mass and morphing into the big league. Think Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy. That seems to just keep getting bigger. What started out as a niche crime novel (cold climate crime) is now a phenomenon. On a smaller scale, there is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a feel-good quirky wartime novel that snuck onto the lists in January 2008 (near buried under the annual deluge of diet books) and hasn’t gone away since. In fact, come November, we will have the gift edition, complete with recipes, letters and various miscellany. And it will make an excellent end of year pressie, assuming you can find anyone over the age of 40 who hasn’t actually read it yet.

Which brings me to Richard C Morais and his debut novel The Hundred-Foot Journey. Morais has worked at Forbes magazine for 25 years where he has interviewed everyone from Lula da Silva and Tony Blair to Vaclav Klaus. His first novel is an homage to his friend, film producer the late Ismail Merchant, who died before the book was finished. The film of the book is now in production.

So Morais has written a tale that is more in the vein of Guernsey, than The Thousand Autumns. It is immensely likeable, and immensely readable. The eponymous hundred feet is the distance between two restaurants in a small mountain village in France. One is an elegant, refined, two-hatted establishment run by the stern and obsessed spinster (and there is no other word to describe her) Gertrude Mallory. The other is the new, noisy and rather vulgar Indian restaurant across the street, run by Abbas Haji, who has left Mumbai after sectarian violence tears his world apart.The bridge between the two worlds turns out to be Haji’s son, Hussan, whose talents as a chef will take him places that neither proprietor will ever go.

In fact, The Hundred-Foot Journey is about cultural differences and reconciliations (of sorts) – the things that keep us apart, and the the things that bring us together.  It is as evocative of Mumbai as it is of Paris. The discussions of food are endlessly interesting, as are the insights into the restaurant culture of Paris and the cliques that determine the fates of the very top echelons of chefs. The characters are full of life, marvellously eccentric but at the same time grounded in reality. While it celebrates both Indian and French culture, it never strays into kitsch. As for the role of food in this book – suffice to say it just makes you want to get into the kitchen and turn out something special for those whom you love.

The international hard back of the book is available here now. For some unknown reason, its Australian publisher has dragged the chain (when will this stop happening?) and the less expensive local edition will be released on December 1 (although you can certainly pre-order it from us now). I love this book and I know it will be one you will want to share and discuss. And I for one would be happy to pay for a gorgeous, illustrated gift edition with recipes, maps, photos, travel information etc. If you start talking to your publishers now Mr Morais, you could have it on the market for next Christmas.

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