The first thing I noticed about Matt Whyman’s The Savages was the cover: a vibrant family portrait with a lot of personality. It may sound simple and judgemental to go by the cover alone but it was powerful enough to get me to read it and, after all, isn’t that the point of a book cover?
We first join the Savages as they sit at the dinner table polishing off what is only referred to as a “feast”. Titus is observing his family with the keen eye of a devoted and loving family man and is quick to notice that his eldest child Sasha is not her usual self. Reluctantly she reveals she has a boyfriend. While Titus is shocked to learn his 15 year old is seeing someone, he is even more shocked to find out she is dating is a vegetarian. For most families vegetarianism is a trivial trait to be confronted with but for Titus this is shocking and almost unforgivable.
“For a second it looked as if both Titus and Angelica Savage had frozen in time. Sasha reminded herself to breathe, and then decided it might be best for everyone if she too left the table.”
While Whyman paints a nice suburban picture of a regular family bonding over food, we quickly discover there is more to the Savages than what is presented on the surface; a deep connection with food that goes far beyond normal family culinary experiences and hints at a darker secret surrounding the mysterious family “feasts”. This is best explored through the eyes of Vernon English, a private investigator hired to look into Titus Savage’s business dealings. It is only when he plants a listening device in their home that he starts to see just how obsessed the Savages are with food:
“What was it with these people? he thought to himself. Everyone needs to eat but the Savages took it to an extreme. Over recent weeks he’d overheard the eldest daughter and her mother conspiring to smuggle vegetarian food and hide it in the cupboards and the fridge, but the secrecy just didn’t make any sense.”
With a present tense narrative that shares perspective with all the characters, The Savages is a pleasant and uncomplicated read. The plot itself is straightforward and doesn’t try to confuse or dazzle readers with too many characters or sub plots. The idea is simple: focus on family, food and the complications that arise when outsiders get too close to uncovering their customised menu.
Review first published in The Australia Times Book Magazine