A Hunger by Ross Raisin review – his most ambitious novel yet

Ross Raisin’s career began explosively when his debut, God’s Own Country – the story of a disturbed youth terrorising a community, in the tradition of William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth and Niall Griffiths’s Sheepshagger – won him nine prize shortlistings and the Sunday Times young writer of the year award. But as my boss once told me, being promoted is all very nice but then you have to do the work, and Raisin’s follow-up, Waterline, was a misstep. His third novel, A Natural, however, was one of the best books of 2017, though weirdly overlooked by prize juries.

His new novel, A Hunger, is its equal, and his most ambitious achievement yet. It reminded me of those cliched blurbs promising that a book “tells us what it means to be human” – which they rarely do. Yet here is one that does just that, encompassing work and family, desires and appetites, responsibility and identity.

Our narrator is Anita, a sous chef in her mid-50s at a high-end London restaurant, who goes home every day to “the second job, Patrick” – her husband of 30 years, suffering from vascular dementia after a series of strokes. Her task makes Sisyphus’s look rewarding: slow decline, a little worse each day, punctuated by shouts in the night and the occasional harrowing lucidity (“I don’t want this life”).

Anita’s story comes in thin slices: chapters in the present alternate with short scenes from her past, one for each year from 1970 – when she was six years old – to 2018. It’s a risky business: we lose the possibility of sustained tension but gain a cumulative insight into the elements that constitute a life.

We see how Anita (“I come from a family of nutcases”) has always been looking after others, starting with her mother (“I need you to help me, Anita”). Surrendering her own interests to those of her mum, children, husband and head chef makes her wonder who she really is. She sees herself as an accumulation of past identities – “all the women that used to be me” – just as she sees Patrick bit by bit disappear and her children become unknowable. (As an aside, Raisin deserves credit for recognising how much parenting time is spent telling your kids to put their shoes on.)

Anita’s story is filled with the ironies of adulthood. The more help Patrick needs, the more he resists; while for Anita, Patrick’s dementia frees her from his previous controlling behaviour (“he treats you like shit”, as son Matthew says) but imprisons her in obligations. But some light gets through: she plans to open her own restaurant with supplier and colleague Peter, who is more than a colleague, and maybe more than a friend. “Something has changed. A hunger is growing in me”; and hunger is the great motivator.

The attention to detail with which Anita is drawn means she steps outside the pages and lives enduringly in the reader’s mind. This is a character-driven story that resists the temptation of a neat ending, though there are a couple of gut-punch moments – which are all the more effective for not being the ones the reader was expecting.

A Hunger by Ross Raisin is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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