Nancy McKibben's Reviews > The Mouse-Proof Kitchen

The Mouse-Proof Kitchen by Saira Shah
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bookshelves: food-and-cooking, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who enjoy domestic drama

The Mouse-Proof Kitchen
By Saira Shah

This novel examines every parent’s nightmare (well, one of them - we parents have a lot to worry about): Anna and Tobias’s baby daughter is born with severe disabilities. Anna, a chef, and Tobias, a composer, are ill-prepared - perhaps no one is ever prepared - and conflicted. Although Anna bonds at once with baby Freya, Tobias holds back, afraid to love a child who will only bring them heartbreak.

The couple decides, perhaps not all together maturely, to go forward with their dream of moving to France where Anna can continue her career as a chef. In short order, they find themselves not in Provence, because it turns out to be far too expensive, but in Languedoc, a much wilder and more remote part of France, in an appealing, but tumble-down French farmhouse, complete with several eccentric live-in characters.

While Anna copes by canning produce and beating back rats and mice, Tobias hides behind his headphones, composing. Freya’s seizures become more frequent, her needs more demanding, and the couple feels overwhelmed and isolated. Nevertheless, they love their baby:
She makes exquisite little hand movements, delicate as rare orchids in high cloud forests. Her expressions change like weather fronts. I love the serious way she takes her milk from a bottle, a thousand-mile gaze of concentration in her slate-colored eyes. Afterward, she’s sated, drunken, collapsed. When I tilt her forward to burp her, her arms swing forward reflexively, a baby monkey clinging to its mother. As we drift off to sleep, she swims toward me. I never see or feel her move, but when I wake she’s snuggled under my armpit, the sheet soaked where my breasts have rained down on her.

She’s my own, my baby, and she’s perfect. I’m entirely content.

Then the switch flicks in my head and the doctors’ diagnoses become abruptly real. I hang onto her and cry, for minutes, for hours.
This is an honest book. Being Freya’s parents is tough, and Anna and Tobias frequently are irrational, even hateful. The reader can only wonder how she would cope in the same situation; after all, Freya as a baby is still appealing. But her diagnosis means that she will never sit or stand; how will her parents manage as Freya grows? Should they institutionalize her? Will they ever forgive themselves if they do?

Despite all the angst, this book is not a downer. Although Freya is central to the story, she is not all there is to life, as her parents discover. The author tells us in the "Notes and Acknowledgments" that she is the mother of exactly such a child, and wrote the book “as a parallel world where I escaped to subvert a real-life existence that sometimes seemed unbearable.”

Unbearable, yet hopeful. Fictional, yet true-to-life. Don’t be put off by its subject: The Mouse-Proof Kitchen is a worthwhile and uplifting read.

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Reading Progress

July 19, 2013 – Started Reading
July 19, 2013 – Finished Reading
July 20, 2013 – Shelved
July 20, 2013 – Shelved as: food-and-cooking
July 20, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed

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