Review by Basil Ransome-Davies
‘And then at last I began to realise how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.’ confesses the eponymous heroine of James M, Cain’s posthumously published novel The Cocktail Waitress. The punji trap of unintended consequences that dash high hopes is a repeated theme in Cain’s fiction. He has commonly been viewed as a specialist in of ‘greed, sex and murder’, an unholy trio that also motors the plot of The Book of the Most Precious Substance. As the author carefully explains in an interview, ‘I think the problem with all of this stuff [i.e. occultism, ’magic’], and the problem in the book, is that people are generally wrong about what they think is going to make them happy.’
It’s apparent at the start that Lily Albrecht, the narrator-protagonist, is not happy. She knows what happiness is, having previously lived the dream by publishing a bestseller, Beauty, and enjoying a passionate, ideal relationship with her husband and soulmate, Abel. She wants it back. But now Abel, formerly a star of ‘academic high theory’ is a mute, helpless dementia case needing full-time care. The carer is Awe, a Nigerian immigrant. Abel’s long-term condition has drained money away on medical costs and Lily estimates that of every dollar she earns as a specialist book dealer thirty cents has to go to pay Awe.
It’s apparent that something’s got to give, and the catalyst for Lily’s pursuit of a more expansive – and expensive – way of living is a fabled volume of arcane sex magic she hears of at a local booksellers’ fair. The Book of the Most Precious Substance is the rarest of the rare, and the most valuable, worth millions. It lights up the dollars signs in Lily’s eyes. This surprise discovery grows into an obsessive quest, and the reader is at the narrator’s shoulder as she and her librarian co-bibliophile, Lucas Markson, follow the erratic chain of connections that promises to lead them to their obscure object of desire, a Grail-like pilgrimage.
From this point, the novel charts a fantastic odyssey, an adventure story rather than a triller, as the two follow clues, chase connections, even get a big-bucks donation to fund their running expenses. It’s quite a trip, moving the seekers around US cities before taking them to Europe, where Paris sees the dramatic climax of their long, dedicated search. Yet as so often in US fiction, the journey rather than the destination is what captures the reader’s attention. Along the way, as they hustle to locate what proves to be the unique surviving copy of the book, they lead a life of excitement and luxury. First class travel, only the best hotels for them, and I drooled over Gran’s closely, sensuously, described roster of fine dining. In New Orleans, for example, Lily opts for the ninety-five dollar tasting menu including, ‘perfect briny oysters… a small plate with upscale versions of boudin and andouille sausage and local cheese… étouffée and blackened catfish served with mirliton and okra, each a mix of traditional seasonings and moneyed, geometric presentation.’ And that’s not to mention the oceans of Champagne.
I’m all for gastro-porn, though of course the key word here is ‘moneyed’. There can be few buyers for the book, as only the obscenely rich can afford it, and great wealth plus a monomaniac fixation equal eccentricity, if not a disturbing challenge to mainstream norms. Among those sought out or opportunely appearing at crucial stages of the search to help, distract or deceive are a reclusive tech billionaire and a titled French dominatrix. And Lily’s involvement doesn’t stop at making enquiries; the rituals to be performed in activating the grimoire’s occult power demand the magical employment of bodily fluids – sweat, semen, blood, even, it is hinted, female ejaculate.
The Book of the Most Precious Substance segues into a fabulist chronicle, the characters introduced along the trail ever more grotesque, their wealth more bloated, their motives darker. As the journey gathers momentum, international trains and planes function as the 21st-century equivalents of mythical seven-league boots. After the New York, LA and New Orleans trips come expeditions to Amsterdam, Munich and finally Paris. The pace gets hotter. The sex grows weirder (though I have to say that for me the erotic effect, as so often in fiction, is underwhelming). The mysteries of the book, finally disclosed, carry a fatal injunction.
Noting that other reviewers have found the ending dubious or disappointing, I dissent. There is nothing so pointless or wearisome as a moral or life-lesson in these pages, but the author leaves the reader with a wry twist in the tale, something to reflect on. On the other hand, if you just want to truck along for the ride whatever, Gran’s jaunty prose should keep you thoroughly entertained.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Sara Gran, The Book of the Most Precious Substance (Faber, 2022) 978-0571375635, 317pp., hardback.
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