There is a particular, fascinating branch of historical fiction devoted to probing the inner depths of individuals so legendary and strange that they border on myths. Such tales can take on all the verisimilitude and tactile detail of more straightforward historical fiction, while also saying something new about the time period depicted and the strange pathways through which we discover the human condition. A.K. Blakemore proves that she is exactly the kind of great storyteller required to pull that off in this tale about one of Revolutionary France’s most puzzling and frightening figures.
The Glutton is the story of Tarare, a young man who became a legend across France in the late 18th century for his seemingly bottomless appetite. Long a fixation for those interested in medical oddities, Tarare’s life is both dark folklore and a documented case of a man who could, and would, eat just about anything. Using contemporary medical accounts of Tarare’s life and condition as a guide, Blakemore picks up this odd man’s story and attempts to chart his journey to gluttony from his impoverished childhood to his days as a street performer to, finally, his death in a hospital bed, overseen by nuns who were both horrified and fascinated by his plight.
Right away, Blakemore walks a fine, brilliant narrative line, establishing Tarare’s infamy in his lifetime, then moving forward with a story that’s simultaneously sympathetic to the character and unflinching in its depiction of how far he’s willing to go in an attempt to sate himself. Though he comes into the world as a sweet, curious boy, he will eventually devour refuse, rotting flesh, and even living flesh. What forces transform Tarare, and what do they say about the society into which he was born?
Blakemore examines these questions while drawing readers deep into the entertaining, propulsive story at the book’s core. The great gift of this novel is that Blakemore somehow never loses sight of the warm, thrumming humanity that is Tarare. He’s a man, he’s a monster, he’s a frightened boy and he’s a living myth. All of these aspects live through Blakemore’s lyrical, sweeping prose, making The Glutton a stunning, mesmeric novel of uncommon power.