Leah's Reviews > Lilla's Feast: A True Story Of Love, War, And A Passion For Food

Lilla's Feast by Frances Osborne
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's review
Feb 21, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, general-history
Read in February, 2012

For a first book, Lilla's Feast is a pretty exceptional achievement.

Osborne said that she originally intended the story of her great-grandmother to be the basis for a novel, but that it was so exceptional that she felt it couldn't be written any other way.
The result is a chatty, readable story of a woman's life, with all the accoutrement of tragedy, family, photographs and secrets that one would expect in a hundred-year life, played out heart-wrenchingly against the backdrop of the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century.

Osborne does not hide her own partiality, frequently writing of how she felt as a girl going to see Lilla and how the events described affected her emotionally. This can occasionally grate on the reader, who doesn't particularly want to know how the author is feeling when they are following Lilla's journey themselves. In this way the book sometimes reads a little too like a genealogy story written by family, for family. But mostly the asides add to the chatty style of storytelling: it is as though we are sitting across the table from Osborne, listening to her tell the story of her great-grandmother's fascinating life. One of the best things about the story is that many of us probably have similar stories in our own family trees. This is a biography and a history written out of interest and love, not because the author was related to an important figure in history (although her next book The Bolter is something a little more like this). Possibly the most interesting way of telling history is to show the reader how it affected those who were there at the time.

I occasionally got tired of the flowery food descriptions inserted into Lilla's story at strategic moments. Osborne certainly uses her imagination to full effect to give Lilla a voice where she has none anymore, winding her own impressions of Lilla's feelings with descriptions of the way Lilla used cooking and homemaking to solve problems and sort out her life. This got tiresome at times, to the point where it was obvious padding of the story. The same goes for using her cookbook as a focus point for the story - a book begun just before her internment in the Japanese concentration camp in China and written throughout her three years there. Osborne uses it as a device to guess Lilla's feelings and to reason out her actions. Ultimately, she is revealing the problem of every biographer in that, how can we possibly know what was going through Lilla's mind as she wrote it, as she hid it in a suitcase, as she donated it to a museum? On reflection, the device is a little obvious, but it still works fairly well.

Lilla's story is well developed, her life outlined and filled in but not nicely resolved, as Lilla's life was not resolved. She reached one hundred years old amidst the question of whether or not she was a British subject at all. Unable to return to China, the country of her birth and the place she considered her home, she ended her life in England, surrounded by family but still feeling like a foreigner. Lilla's life, like that of much of her family and so many other ex-Empire citizens, petered out in a place that no longer had any room for them, in a pale finality without any of the glory of the Empire of her youth. In the final pages of Lilla's life, Osborne brings home the painful feelings of being adrift in a world that was totally unlike the one into which Lilla had been born.

Overall, a flawed but extremely enjoyable book that draws the reader into the old world of Lilla's youth and plucks at their heart when that world crumbles away.
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