Review published on March 1, 2018.
For all readers, books hold a special place in their hearts; they are a blessing, an escape, a lifeline. But for Laura Freeman, books have played their part, quite literally, in saving her life, through a magic most readers have probably, and quite understandably, failed to notice, and in a way one could hardly begin to imagine: food.
Freeman, who first began to suffer with anorexia nervosa at the age of thirteen, and received a diagnosis at the age of fifteen, has been battling the illness for over a decade. At its lowest ebb in her teens, it took her to the brink both physically and mentally, and where medicine and food could not bring her salvation, hope or peace, aside from the love of her family, there was only one thing that spoke to her, that gently pulled her back: books.
But the answer is not a recipe book nor a food guru telling her what she should and shouldn’t eat. No, Laura’s quest to reconnect with food through reading begins with Dickens, that most miserly of foodies surely, the man who coined the phrase that epitomises the hungry orphan: ‘please, sir, I want some more.’ Yet, for Freeman, it was through working her way through the sixteen published novels by Dickens, in which food peppers the pages in all of its varied Victorian guises, that she begins ‘to want to want food’ again. And Dickens with his ‘mock-turtle soup marbled with fat’ and ‘haystack of buttered toast’ is just the beginning in Freeman’s slow but positive recovery at the hands of authors. From Siegfried Sassoon to Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, Virginia Woolf to Frances Hodgson Burnett, Freeman reads about dishes modest and lavish, small and large, homely and exotic, and starts to battle her illness.
It is a rare and singular memoir, that gives an eye-opening insight into this most crippling of eating disorders, but also a testament to the power of literature, in the most unexpected and inspiring of ways. Indeed, it made me realise completely anew the value of books. I have always believed in their importance and their ability to give comfort and hope, but here there is a real, tangible sense of their ability to help those even in the darkest of moments, to offer salvation and inspire well-being. Thank goodness for authors and the various spells they can weave with their words.
It gave me too an entirely new perspective on books. I must admit in the many books I have read, I have never paid much attention to the food that characters do or don’t eat, the meals they share, the meals they miss. In fact, that universal Oliver Twist image aside, I can really only recall two other instances of food in books I have read: the wonders of the Wonka chocolate factory and JK Rowling’s wizarding delights of butter beer and chocolate frogs. But books are clearly bursting with food; it is just something I have been ignorant of, but I suspect not any more. I look forward to discovering books with this fresh perspective, and I am sure Freeman will travel with me for a long time as I read.
Freeman’s struggles with food made me acutely aware of my own relationship with food, one that we can often take for granted. Never have I felt so invested in an author’s journey, never have urged one on so fiercely, never cheered every morsel, every meal, every slice of cheese on toast, every Yorkshire pudding. Freeman is open and honest in her struggles; this is an illness that doesn’t let go, that the sufferer must battle every day, and it is an exhausting, lonely fight, but with the help of books and the author’s strength, Freeman has fought on, and she is a true inspiration. Freeman writes frankly about the mental torments of anorexia too, saying that it is an illness that isolates, but it is heartening to know she has found solace in literature and hopefully it will be reassuring too that she will undoubtedly have the support and best wishes of all those who read her moving, enlightening and thought-provoking book. Freeman’s book reminds me just how wonderful books are and I hope she continues to find strength and encouragement in them as I’m sure readers will find strength and encouragement in Freeman’s memoir.
The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman
W&N 9781474604642 hbk Feb 2018
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