If I could sum this book up in two words it would be ‘wonderfully bizarre’. Julia Darling’s novel ‘Crocodile Soup’ is a very clever piece that leaves you wondering if the storyteller Gert is mad or if in fact real life is mad. This has taken me a little longer than I thought, but this was good in two ways, firstly I wanted to savour the writing and secondly the surreal qualities of the novel do mean you need to read this carefully to piece it all together, it’s worth it.
Gert the unlikely likeable heroine of the novel is unfulfilled; she works behind the scenes of a museum (I think this is where the Kate Atkinson similarities have started) in the Egyptian Department. The museum has just been funded by the lottery meaning jobs are unstable and in the midst of this an infatuation starts with her over Eva the girl in the canteen. In her modern life she starts to unravel, partly after receiving letters from her estranged mother. She starts going back over her turbulent childhood as well as her adult years and it appears she is having some kind of breakdown.
The surreal is not in the modern part of the book, more in her childhood. Her twin brother Frank makes it clear she hasn’t always been the best truth teller. You hear wonderful stories of her childhood, the ghost in the house, the flasher by the pond, her fathers and the nannies separate disappearances and your left wondering if this brilliant surreal stories are true or not. All in all it doesn’t matter because they are fantastic stories which more seem to explain the mental and emotional journey of a young girl becoming a woman and a gay woman whilst being totally alienated by her mother. This is a coming of age tale unlike I have read in a long while.
This could have been a harrowing tale of the breakdown between a mother and daughter and I must admit the ending was more positive than I expected, that doesn’t give anything away. I think the thing I loved most about this book though was the humour, Darling’s voice as an author is wonderful. There are lines such as ‘Barbara’s face was smeared with gin. She looked liked the type who cried if you showed her affection… I did and she cried for weeks.’ This is a moving, sometimes slightly disturbing, surreal funny novel that has made reading a pleasure. Sadly Julia Darling died in 2005 aged 48 of breast cancer and only wrote two novels, a voice truly lost, I will be getting the man booker long-listed ‘The Taxi Drivers Daughter’ as soon as I can and I am sure devouring that too.