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The Stromness Dinner

ISBN-13: 
9781781725962
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
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£9.99

Ed Beech is one half of Beech Building Services. He’s based in Bermondsey but no job’s too small, no distance too great. So when he’s asked to do some work on a house in Orkney, he loads the van with paint, tools and sandwiches, and takes off. He gets nervous around farm animals and large ships, and he’s never been so far north, but when he’s joined by Claire, his client’s city banker sister, he discovers that in Stromness, anything is possible.

Peter Benson’s compelling new novel continues his exploration of unlikely relationships, and paints a vivid picture of a place where all is not what it seems, but might be.

“What’s on the menu at The Stromness Dinner? Small plates, big flavours. Peter Benson has the miniaturist’s eye for the tiny details that bring grand themes alive: the love of food, the love of island life, and a love of love itself. His novel is humorous, humane and horrible good (as we say in Stromness.)” – Duncan McLean

“Benson’s snappy novel rattles along with irresistible pace and panache... his story will captivate and entertain and the happy ending is a great treat during the current pandemic nightmare.” – Val Hennessy

Praise for Peter Benson:

“Defiantly realistic at times, luridly surreal at others, his writing’s ability to compound striking metaphors of the abstract with a graphic physicality has won him a deserved following.” Times Literary Supplement.

“Beautiful writing and thoughtful language… page after page of stunning prose.” Time Out.

The Best Meal I Ever Had - Trailer for The Stromness Dinner

 

 

Catch up with the online launch to hear Peter in conversation with Duncan McLean:

 

REVIEWS

Review by Northern Vicar, Northern Reader

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I read this book, almost in one sitting. Which isn’t bad for a book chosen for the title! Ed is a builder in south London. He’s based near Guy’s Hospital, so I knew enough about the London environment to enjoy it. He renovates Marcus’ flat, then gets asked to have a few days north to renovate the house in Stromness that was owned by Marcus’ father. I liked the way his journey north makes sense – hire a van, load it up, early start, coffee at Newport Pagnell, lunch at Woodall, break at the border, sleep at Pitlochry, very early start, doughnut in Inverness, coffee at Tain, ferry from Scrabster.

I can picture the house he is working on, the crowds from the cruise ships, the beauty of St Magnus and the ferry ride to the outer islands (though I could not manage four bacon rolls in one crossing). I love the idea that Skara Brae “was made up like the Flintstones. It was like some farmer had lost all his sheep in accident and woken up in the middle of the night a few days later and thought ‘I’ll make an old village in the sand dunes at the bottom of that useless field, tell some nobs from England that I’ve discovered the ruins of somewhere that was built before anyone even thought about the pyramids and I’ll be quids in’” (page 135).

Claire, Marcus’ sister, comes north, staying at a nearby inn, removing what she wants from the house, and Ed is smitten. As well as a decorator he is a chef, and loves cooking for two. She insists he takes some time off, and they travel to see Hermann, an old friend of her dad’s, who is an artist on the island of Eday. At lunch Ed writes “Hermann and I sparred, Claire and Hermann did that thing old men and younger women do when they know they could have had something but time worked against them, and Claire and I danced” (page 200). A trip to the Pier Art Centre at Stromness matches my memory of it – a fascinating building, art I didn’t understand, expensive pencil sharpeners in the shop.

Ed loves his food, He describes the meals he cooks, and the meals he has eaten, in superb detail. I am no gourmet-chef (or gourmet diner), but I love the idea of telling the about the best meal he ever ate as a substitute for telling the reader about a night of amazing sex. Enough details to make me think “lucky man”. Will it just be a holiday fling, or more than that?

This is a really good read that I would recommend; if you haven’t been to Orkney you will want to go, and if you know and love Orkney, you will want to go back.

Review by Robert Pisani, The Bobsphere

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Generally when I write a review, I like to keep my own opinions until midway but here I’m going to break that rule.

I think The Stromness Dinner is absolutely fantastic. Every reader cliche happened; I couldn’t put the book down, I was absorbed in the novel’s world and time didn’t exist.

The plot, is a simple one: builder Ed is contracted to arrange a banker, Marcus’ father’s house as he, along with his sister, Claire, are going to sell it. Claire comes by to see how things are going and Ed and her fall in love. There’s a subplot involving a bowl.

On paper, or screen, this seems like an archetypical love story but The Stromness Dinner is much better than that, mainly because of the main protagonist.

Ed is a memorable character. He observes the tiny details of life. Nothing goes unnoticed, every smell , movement and speck of dirt gets documented. Then there’s his way of speaking. Aside from noting minutiae he also has a economic grasp of the English language. What I mean is that polysyllabic language does not exist in his vocabulary and yet he is able to articulate all his thoughts and desires clearly. If you met Ed in real life, you would know where you’d stand with him.

Despite his bare basics way of speaking he does have a refined palate and understands the importance of certain ingredients , in the novel we get him admonishing his mother not to include bacon and use guanciale in spaghetti carbonara. Throughout the novel us readers get little cooking tips. The thing is, although he knows his food, art is beyond him. He also likes to learn and is slightly self conscious of what he wears. Ed is definitely not an oik, rather a product of poor education or someone who wants to live and speak in an unpretentious manner (not foodwise). This mentality is even evident with his relationship with Claire, which is probably the reason why she is attracted to him.

The end result is a rich, warm and funny book. It’s got satirical moments which jab the British class system, north of England vs South mentality and Brexit (Ed’s explanation of why the Brexit happened is quite humorous). Some emotional ones and Ed’s narration style makes the novel super readable. The Stromness Dinner is an utter delight, from beginning to end and, at this point is definitely one of my reading highlights of 2021.

Reviewed by Rhianon Holley, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A lyrical and evocative tale of one man’s unexpected journey – while finding love when it’s least expected – forms the basis of this novel from Guardian Fiction Prize-winning author Peter Benson. Ed spends his days working with his father for his family building services business in south London, when he is offered a refurbishing job in Orkney by Marcus, one of his clients.

Guiding the reader through the simple events of his daily life before the trip, he appears to lead a straightforward and uncomplicated existence. However, his time in Orkney and his relationship with Marcus’ sister Claire awakens new desires and possibilities that he could not have anticipated, despite their differences.

Despite the events throughout the novel not appearing to be significantly noteworthy, the simple prose and vivid descriptions as seen through Ed’s eyes convey an interesting assessment of the world. Having not encountered Benson’s previous works, I was enchanted by the story – indeed, I have ordered another of Pete Benson’s books looking to fill the void that finishing The Stromness Dinner left behind. An impactful novel that highlights the basic human characteristics of hope and love, from a very distinctive contemporary fiction voic

Review by Rosemary Moon, The Island Cook

Friday, November 27, 2020

It’s not everyday that a chance meeting in your local deli and wine shop (Kirkness & Gorie in Kirkwall) leads to a book arriving to be reviewed. But this is Orkney, and that’s what happened. I met Peter Benson in Duncan McLean’s shop discussing his upcoming book launch. I said Yes to a copy and came home thinking that I have a stack of books that I want to read so why have I just agreed to read this?

Peter Benson is the same age as me and was brought up in the south of England as was I. The Stromness Dinner concept worried me. Was this going to be a novel packed with cooking detail written by a wannabe food writer or a dedicated hobby cook that would make me feel that my home cooking was somehow inferior to the restaurant quality food that we are all being encouraged to make by today’s TV programmes? I’ve read enough novels by cooks to be wary of the culinary novel: Prue Leith’s early books of fumbles on banquettes in Fortnum’s and choral endeavours were painful but Elizabeth Luard made the transition with magnificent success. How would this be?

Chapters that are three, four or five pages long are brilliant – they make you want to read just one more before you stop and consequently I gobbled up this book. I was hooked from page 1 – which is actually page 7, but you know what I mean. Ed is based in Bermondsey and is a regular builder bloke who loves his food and his women although he seems more successful with food. In and out of many of my old haunts I could visualise the menus and the crush at the bar, but that was just to set the scene. I have had some of the best meals and attended the most memorable food events in Bermondsey. I was in for the whole mini-chaptered tasting menu of this book, from cover to cover.

Ed came to Stromness to tidy up a house for a London client to sell. Marcus and Claire had been left the house by their Dad who had just died. They loved it but it had to go. Ed thought Claire was gorgeous but out of his reach.

Ed came to Stromness. Claire came a few days later. The attraction was simmering then moving to a rolling boil. I was beginning to get uncomfortable. I had thoroughly enjoyed the bloke-y pace of the writing but I was worried that I was heading for gastro sex and maybe eating oozing Brie off each other’s torsos but it was all ok and I had not even a hint of indigestion as I finished the book.

For an Incomer to Orkney as I am, Benson’s skill in capturing the idiosyncrasies of the Islands was as sharp as a Japanese knife blade. His insights were witty and perceptive. He absolutely nailed the quality of the local food and drink that is available in the local shops. Those who shop in the supermarkets – as Ed did from time to time – so often trade down from the local quality foods. Ed’s description of fish and chips in the Ferry Inn and steaks from Flett’s were spot on – I know those flavours and textures, just I knew the pubs and their menus in Bermondsey.

‘Don’t knock this place and it’s people. They make it what it is.’ I feel that very strongly about Orkney and to integrate into the community you have to be accepting of everyone . But The Stromness Dinner is a novel, and an immensely enjoyable main course of one too. I’ll be recommending it to the Book Club when we can meet again.

Review by Alison Miller, The Orcadian

Friday, November 13, 2020

You could say nothing much happens in The Stromness Dinner: a young working class Bermondsey lad, Ed, agrees to take on a house-clearing, roof repair and paint job in Stromness. He travels north. He gets on the boat. He arrives in Orkney. He gets on with the job. Nothing much happens. Or everything does.

 

In Ed who narrates the story, Peter Benson has created a character both entirely believable and immensely likable. Marcus, a rich bloke Ed runs into, hires him to fix his London kitchen. Ed has Marcus taped in minutes: “He might have been posh but I could tell he was sound.” Marcus makes a similarly instant judgement on Ed, sees him as a good worker, skilled, clean, efficient, trustworthy, a safe pair of hands. It is Marcus who asks Ed to do the job in Stromness.

 

Though Ed has a strong sense of himself, he is embarrassed by his lack of education: “Sometimes, when I think about school and what I didn’t do there and how I used to muck around in lessons, I feel ashamed. Then sometimes I feel angry, because I was an idiot.”

 

And yet, Ed is clearly intelligent with his own unique take on the world, mostly apprehended through smell and taste. With his deadpan humour, it would be hard to be bored in his company: there is an underground stream running deep beneath the flat, plain surface of the prose and every few paragraphs a bubble of merriment breaks through, occasionally an undertow of sadness. Mostly Ed is a man of few words. He has his routines and his standards in his work. He gets on with it.

 

Ah, but food! When it comes to food, Ed’s descriptions are far from plain and, whether he’s eating, thinking about it or cooking, the metaphors fly right over the top:

 

“What can I say about our dry aged Hereford beef rumps with homemade fries, béarnaise sauce and watercress? I have no idea what they’d done with the steak, but if the chef had come out and told me that they employed angels to kiss the cow to death before peeling the rump off with little silver prongs and cooking it on a flame made by rubbing fairies’ thighs together I’d have believed him – I’d never eaten anything like it. It didn’t just melt in my mouth, it danced a little jig and sang happy birthday as it slipped down my throat. ‘Wow…’ I said.”

 

Onwards to Orkney. Ed hires a van, loads it with paint and tools, drives north, encountering various characters on the way, arrives at the house in Stromness and gets to work. He visits Skara Brae. OK, I can be as prickly as the next Orcadian in defence of our sacred cows, but Ed’s judgement on Skara Brae made me laugh. He decided it had been built by a farmer in an unproductive corner of a field, to fleece gullible tourists. He liked the soup in the café, though. Now and again I wondered if the light – and lighting up times – were right for early July, only two weeks past the solstice, when Ed arrives. And Warebeth? A grey shore with rocks? Ginger and cinnamon, surely.

 

When he comes across different Stromness residents, it is difficult to avoid that Orcadian tradition: “Whar wid that be?” But despite Ed’s assertion on the flyleaf that “…this story is based on things that happened…” it’s clear that the characters are fictional. At least I hope they are! Though some real Orkney businesses get a name check: Eric Flett’s, the Ferry Inn, Orkney Fish and Kirkness & Gorie all appear with Ed’s approval.

 

I can’t tell you what happens in Stromness without spoiling the story. A bowl goes missing. An expensive bowl. A woman turns up. Love blossoms. Or does it?

 

What I can say is that, like Marcus who hires him for his building skills, I felt in safe hands with Ed as narrator of his own story and could happily have spent more time with him.

 

I closed the book with a great big smile on my face and a tear in my eye.

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