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by Monique Roffey
Reviewed by Chris Mills

Glorious colours riotously abound in Monique Roffey's first novel: 'deep purples, maroons, reds and oranges'. It is set in a delicatessen cum cafe in Shepherd's Bush, London where large, ungainly August Chalmin presides over culinary riches. Finlay's Deli is the busy hub of the district, a valued part of the community. Wonderfully described, it is full of exotic tastes, smells and textures; but it is much more than an attractive workplace for August. It gives refuge and companionship as he struggles to find his niche in the world. He knows that he has to stop hiding away and start fully living, but it's easier said than done. Perhaps a little help is needed. I was intrigued and charmed straightaway by the unlikely hero of Roffey's story.

August is uncomfortable with his 'upright blood-orange hair which limbo danced crazily from his head' and wishes he looked different (like a young Peter Frampton or Adam Ant). His red eyebrows and lashes make him look as if he were 'crawling with fire ants or some other kind of insect'. He also has the palest blue eyes that cannot cope with bright light, therefore August much prefers the duller tones of winter. Part of his distress is caused by knowing that his striking looks bear no resemblance to those of his late father, a slim, neat blond haired man nicknamed 'Lucky Luke'. But who then is his real father?

August is a troubled, anxious person; you are soon aware that underneath the surface, trying to emerge chrysalis-like into the daylight, is the man he would like to be. He is awkward and self conscious in public, but when he is alone, one of his delights is listening to music (often salsa in the deli before opening time) and he is able to forget himself for a while in the rhythm: 'He danced on, past the wall of pasta sauces, marvelling at their flavours, silently mouthing their long onomatopoeic names: arrabiata, basilica, puttanesca, vodka, campagnola'.

The delicatessen is undoubtedly a delicious setting; the smells and tastes are mouth-wateringly evoked. I could picture the cheeses, olives and salamis, to say nothing of the pastries. And I speak as someone who has fond memories of working in a high class deli. This is not a book to read if you are feeling a bit peckish! The undoubted star (and character in its own right) of the deli counter is a rich orange French cheese called Mimolette, characterised as 'rude as open legs, and as brazen', which is highly sought after by customers, though August is immune to its charms. Despite sharing a natural colouring, he and the cheese have a definite personality clash: shyness versus brashness.

During December (the precise date proves significant) August develops a rash that looks like frost, which turns out to be…frost. I don't want to reveal too much and spoil the story for anyone, but I will just say that the bodily expressions of seasonal changes continue. And if you've never come across the term 'sun dog' before, read and learn. As intriguing changes unfold, August gradually becomes more at ease with himself and in tune with his body; he gains confidence and self-assurance and an awareness of life pulsing within him. The changes are magical and yet totally believable.

The story draws the reader in gently, yet firmly, and doesn't let go until nature and its seasons have run their course. The book celebrates life and living and has a robust earthy quality to it. Roffey's beautifully descriptive language and her appealing supporting characters, all with an important part to play in August's metamorphosis, create a real, believable world with a little bit of magic. The term 'feel good read' is much used I admit, but in this case it is certainly justified. I'll be reading Michelle Roffey again without a doubt.