About sixteen months ago I attended a meeting of women writers in Manchester, called in response to the difficulties that the increasing commercialisation of the bigger publishing houses is presenting writers, and with a view to discussing possibilities of setting up an alternative publishing house. One of the main movers behind the meeting was writer and teacher Sherry Ashworth, and it is indeed Sherry who has now, with her husband Brian, established the brand-new Manchester-based publishing house Hidden Gem. Their aim, they say, is to 'publish top quality novels by the best emerging talent'. Their very first publication, launched last week, is Hungry, the Stars and Everything, a striking debut novel from former journalist Emma Jane Unsworth, and last Thursday The Portico Library was packed for the book launch.
It's a high-concept novel in which the elaborate taster menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant triggers memories of the somewhat fraught life of the narrator-protagonist, twenty-nine-year-old food critic Helen Burns, and in which the devil takes a prominent role. A memorable first sentence, 'I was eleven years old when I realised what I wanted most out of life: more' sets the scene for a story of a dysfunctional family background with a dieting mother, anorexia and alcohol addiction, and tension between, on the one hand, the rigid codes of church and grammar school and an unexciting but safe relationship and on the other rebellion and submission to passion. The devil, representing that last, and 'the ultimate bad lad', as Emma described him at the launch, makes vivid appearances throughout. Carried along by the story and the fluent and zippy prose, I read it in a single day. The themes are explored through astronomy as well as food (Helen falls for an astronomer), and there's plenty of tension to keep you wondering about Helen's fate. What's really neat is that in spite of her emotional troubles, sharp turns of phrase make her a feisty protagonist.
Congratulations to Emma, and to Sherry and Brian.