James Albon’s new graphic novel, The Delicacy, is not one to be read just before heading out to dinner. Set in the world of flashy restaurants, this parable of greed and ambition comes with a macabre ending that will undoubtedly put you right off your chanterelles on toast. But even so, it’s a treat from start to finish. Unlike so many recent comics – miserable, wilfully obscure books that I’ve often struggled to get through – this one is a page-turner, as addictive as the dishes dreamed up by its hero, a young man known to his family as Tulip.
When the story begins, Tulip and his brother, Rowan, are living on a Scottish island with their mother, Pegasus (formerly Sarah Green), a woman whose alternative lifestyle involves much balancing of her chakras and long lectures about the embrace of Gaia. Both men would like to escape her clutches and an opportunity to do so soon presents itself in the form of a lawyer, who arrives from the mainland bringing with him the news that they’ve inherited a house in rural Cambridgeshire from their aunt and uncle. Pegasus warns them about England – it’s all concrete and nuclear power – but they’re determined. Off they head in their van, stopping only to refuel at a motorway service station. “I once saw Nigel from Mum’s Wiccan circle eating a pizza on the ferry to Ullapool,” observes Tulip as they tuck into the processed foods they’ve been forbidden for so long.
Their new home is just what they need. Rowan, who has green fingers, establishes a vegetable garden, the produce from which Tulip, a gifted cook, will use in the restaurant he now sets up in a down-at-heel corner of east London. But when his venture suddenly becomes wildly popular – a celebrity sticks it on her Instagram; a critic gives it a rave review – something ugly begins to stir inside him. He cannot resist the temptation to expand, first in Belgravia and Soho, then in New York, where his staff will, he says, soon be “washing dishes with Alain Ducasse’s tears”. His brother will henceforth be just another link in a supply chain, needed only for the extraordinary mushrooms he grows.
Things begin to spiral down. Why are Rowan’s mushrooms so delicious and why do they only grow in certain places? Answering these questions will bring both brothers to the edge of madness and, eventually, to tragedy (though this being a book about upmarket hospitality, their demise will soon be forgotten, a shark-like maitre d’ soon taking over where they left off). It could all be quite deranged on the page – and in a way, it is – but Albon is an expert ringmaster. His drawings, so fluid and colourful, are tailor-made for the depiction of the ravenous hordes – the more fashionable someone is, the more grotesque he makes them look – and he’s a shrewd observer of the wilder shores of the contemporary restaurant kitchen. His pen is as sharp as any Japanese knife and he always seems to know exactly what needs filleting.