I don’t usually read books that I’ve pulled off the library shelves at random. I like to have at least some reasoning for choosing whatever book I’m currently reading. One day without something to read, I saw a face-out book on our new shelves with an eye catching watercolor cover. I grabbed it and after briefly reading the inside cover, decided to go for it.
The Mouse-Proof Kitchen by Saira Shah tells the story of Anna and Tobias, a British couple who, after discovering their newborn daughter, Freya, has a severely underdeveloped brain, pack up their family and move to the south of France. The house they bought, the one they hoped would be their haven, is crumbling. Mold grows out of every damp corner and mice seem to have free reign over the kitchen. The endless repairs coupled with a daughter they can barely take care of, Anna and Tobias are in way over their heads.
Shah manages to temper the bleak premise with a cast of eccentric characters that color Anna and Tobias’ days. First, there’s teenage Lizzy, an American ex-pat who walked from Paris to the southern region of the Languedoc. She appears to have just come with the house and is subsequently employed to care for Freya even though she is more suited to greet tree spirits, reminding them to wake up for Spring, than childcare. Then there’s Kerim, an Algerian traveler Anna nearly hit with her car only to immediately hire him to help with all of their house repairs. Yvonne, a local café owner, hopes to be a world famous charcutière, impressing all with her carefully crafted sausages. Other locals cross paths with Anna and Tobias in their valley which, itself, is still reeling from a dark past.
After the initial setup of the novel, Shah seems generally uninterested in narrative drive. Instead she focuses solely on Anna’s daily struggles. At the lowest points, living each moment is a constant battle between their house falling apart, Freya’s illness (getting worse by the day), and her husband whose response to their daughter is to completely withdraw. At other points, the wealth of description of this French valley makes it seem like a type of Eden. Anna spends much of her time attempting to cultivate her kitchen garden and Shah has no problem taking the time to describe the landscape – figs, lavender, wisteria, dahlias, onions, geraniums, chrysanthemums, apple blossoms – in such detail it’s not hard to imagine yourself working the rocky soil side by side Anna.
My initial reaction was since this novel could have only one, tragic ending (that Freya succumbs to her fits) Shah was making a general point of it’s not where we end up that’s ultimately important – it’s how we choose to live in those moments leading up. It’s still a possible impetus, but after finishing the novel, I discovered that this novel is nearly autobiographical. Shah herself had a severely disabled daughter and soon after, moved with her husband to the south of France.The lack of definitive ending is understandable as Shah’s life isn’t over either. There is no ending yet. Instead, The Mouse-Proof Kitchen reads as the result of Shah grappling with frustration, disappointment, heartbreak, and joy all fluctuating and overlapping simultaneously. It’s an emotional outpouring rather than a tradition novel. There’s undeniable authenticity and beauty to Shah’s novel which makes it definitely worth checking out.
Want more travel stories? Try Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes.