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  Books   18 May 2024  Book Review | If cooks could kill: The enigma of the ugly femme fatale

Book Review | If cooks could kill: The enigma of the ugly femme fatale

Published : May 18, 2024, 11:01 am IST
Updated : May 18, 2024, 11:01 am IST

This novel gives you a delicious taste of modern Japanese food

Cover page of Butter
 Cover page of Butter

Gourmet cook and romancer of lonely old men, Manako Kajii, is convicted and locked in Tokyo Detention House on charges of killing her lovers. The case kicks off a storm, and the cruellest comments come from social media of course, trashing her for not looking like a glamorous femme fatale: “What the public found most alarming, even more than Kajii’s lack of beauty, was the fact that she was not thin. Women appeared to find this aspect of the case profoundly disturbing, while in men it elicited an extraordinary display of hatred and vitriol. From early childhood, everyone had had it drummed into them that if a woman wasn’t slim, she wasn’t worth bothering with.”

Rika, an ambitious young journalist, is desperate to interview Kajii, but all her requests have been ignored so far. Her best friend Reiko tells her that all passionate cooks love sharing recipes, so there’s a good chance that if in her next request letter she asks for one, Kajii will rise to the bait. The strategy works and Rika gets an in.

Kajii, however, is not an easy person to interview — it’s evident from the very beginning that she’s the one who calls the shots. It seems that all she’s interested in talking about is food, something Rika really isn’t into — she’s a convenience eater who subsists on bento boxes and ramen. She’s also a feminist, unlike Kajii, who tells her, “But there are two things that I simply cannot tolerate — feminists and margarine.”

Kajii throws only scraps of information at Rika, and makes her jump through hoops for more. Starting with developing a taste for butter, with a simple recipe thrown in: cooked rice, good quality butter, and a drop of soya sauce. Rika tries it and is hooked. Her hedonistic culinary journey begins here, and it’s not only her body that begins to change. Reiko gets alarmed, and warns Rika that she’s fallen under Kajii’s spell. She reminds her that professional distance must be maintained, but perhaps Rika is too far in to heed her advice?

This novel gives you a delicious taste of modern Japanese food — exquisite descriptions of morsels exploding or melting in the mouth and hitting high umami notes will drive foodies mad with lust. The other aspect of Japanese culture that the author delves into equally enthusiastically is severe, however — gender disparity and exacting standards of beauty — so exacting that it’s not surprising that Kajii rebels against it in all her plump glory.

Most of the characters we meet are from broken homes or unhappy families. The gender debate plays out through almost every page. Take the fact that Reiko, who is more staunchly feminist than Rika, decides to give up her high power job after marriage and is determined to be a domestic goddess and have babies. Then there’s Rika’s boyfriend who is flabbergasted when she cooks for him — that’s not what he expects or wants a modern woman to do! Oh, there’s so much more on the issue, the debates are endless, and after a point, you may even find them tiresome.

While Butter is an enjoyable read, pace is a problem. There are long stretches of sameness, the twists and turns only come towards the end, and even those are intruded upon with those tedious debates. Yet, I repeat, it’s a book you will enjoy. All the more so because it was inspired by a true story that rocked Japan about a decade ago. Look up Kanae Kijima on Google, and you will find a serial killer of lonely men — Kajii is modelled on her. The author tries to understand why Kijima did what she did, and that in itself is fascinating.



By Asako Yuzuki

Translated by Polly Barton

4th Estate

pp. 452, `599


Tags: book review 2024