At the end of her life, Frances Osborne's one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother Lilla was as elegant as ever-all fitted black lace and sparkling-white diamonds. To her great-grandchildren, Lilla was both an ally and a mysterious wonder. Her bedroom was filled with treasures from every exotic corner of the world. But she rarely mentioned the Japanese prison camps in which she spent much of World War II, or the elaborate cookbook she wrote to help her survive behind the barbed wire.
Beneath its polished surface, Lilla's life had been anything but effortless. Born in 1882 to English parents in the beautiful North China port city of Chefoo, Lilla was an identical twin. Growing up, she knew both great privilege and deprivation, love and its absence. But the one constant was a deep appreciation for the power of food and place. From the noodles of Shanghai to the chutney of British India and the roasts of England, good food and sensuous surroundings, Lilla was raised to believe, could carry one a long way toward happiness. Her story is brimming with the stuff of good fiction: distant locales, an improvident marriage, an evil mother-in-law, a dramatic suicide, and two world wars.
Lilla's remarkable cookbook, which she composed while on the brink of starvation, makes no mention of wartime rations, of rotten vegetables and donkey meat. In the world this magical food journal, now housed in the Imperial War Museum in London, everyone is warm and safe in their homes, and the pages are filled with cream puffs, butterscotch, and comforting soup. In its writing, Lilla was able to transform the darkest moments into scrumptious escape.
Lilla's Feast is a rich evocation of a bygone world, the inspiring story of an ordinary woman who tackled the challenges life threw in her path with an extraordinary determination.
Osborne is amazed by her great-grandmother Lilla, whose remarkable life took her from her birth in 1882 in Chefoo, China, to a "not quite prudent" marriage in India, a WWII Japanese internment camp and the end of her life in an England that didn't want her. Regardless of her surroundings, Lilla created a cozy home for her family, excelling in culinary delights. Osborne, who was 13 when Lilla died at 100, wanted to learn more about the mysteries of her great-grandmother's life: "There was an allusion to a 'real father,' who had shot himself.... [T]here was the unheard-of child whom, in a whispered confession, she said she had made herself miscarry." Osborne's research is comprehensive: she draws on family letters, interviews with former colonialists and camp prisoners, historical references and even a recipe book Lilla wrote while interned, and she seamlessly entwines historical events into the narrative. But what stops this biography from being a Far East Out of Africa is the clunky writing. Osborne injects cliched drama into situations and frequently uses sentence fragments to jarring effect. Furthermore, her conjecture and awkward language weaken the memoir's authoritativeness. Lilla, though, is a captivating character; her story rises above the writing's mediocrity. Photos, line drawings. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 12, 2005
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Excerpt from Lilla's Feast by Frances Osborne
THE SWEET SMELL OF SPICE
CHEFOO, NORTH CHINA, THE SECOND-TO-LAST DAY OF MARCH 1882
Ada was born first, taking Lilla's share of good luck with her. Or so everyone said. I'm not sure whether this was a Chinese myth to do with twins or just some family comparison of their two lives--for who can resist comparing the lives of twins? But when Lilla struggled into the world thirty minutes after her sister, she wailed, fists clenched, as if she already knew that she was going to have to fight to make up for being born without her fair share of fortune.
As far as the amah who looked after the two of them was concerned, Ada was Number One Daughter and Lilla, Number Two. When the amah picked up Ada to be fed first, Lilla learned to scream so that she was not forgotten. On the cold, dark mornings of those freezing north China winters that numbed the babies' fingers and noses, Ada was the first to be swaddled in layers of warm clothes and Lilla had to shout to show that she was cold, too. The moment that a thick, slippery, silk ribbon was carefully woven into Ada's plaits, Lilla pushed through her stutter to demand one for herself. And if Ada's ribbon was pink, Lilla made sure that she had a pink one as well. "Right from the start," I was told, "they had the most terrible fights--their shoes had to be put on each foot at the same time."
To look at, Lilla and Ada were identical. Rummaging through the archives of the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, I found a photograph of the pair of them, taken by a visitor to Chefoo when they were about eight years old. In it, they both have exactly the same pale, heart-shaped faces with high cheekbones and delicately pointed chins and noses. And the same long, dark brown--almost black--hair and bright blue eyes.
But only one of them is smiling. And I cannot tell which.
It was when the twins began to move around and talk--developing a twinly private language almost as soon as they did--that a difference emerged between them. The moment Lilla opened her mouth, her stutter betrayed her, while Ada spoke in smooth, clear tones. And when the pair of them started to totter around their redbrick, two-story, end-of-terrace home in the Chinese port of Chefoo (correctly pronounced "shee-fu" but anglicized to "chee-foo")--a house designed to give its inhabitants the illusion of living in a safe British town--it was always Ada who went first. Lilla, a few paces behind, struggled to catch up with her elder sister as, black-booted and white-frilled, they clattered down the steep stone steps that led from the grand European villas and mock castles on Chefoo's Consulate Hill to its port. There, they peered out over a harbor full of junks and, beyond them, to a volcanic reef of green pointed islands, like the spines on the back of a storybook dragon sitting down in the water. They watched as a coastal steamer from Shanghai slid through the water and a regatta of tall, swaying sailing ships and puffing, coal-driven barges from India, from Russia, from Japan, some even straight across the Pacific from San Francisco, nudged their way into moorings. They saw hundreds of barefooted coolies staggering up and down gangplanks--loading silks and peanuts to go to every corner of the world and unloading packages of narcotic brown powder from the hills of India--their conical straw hats shielding their dark-ringed eyes from the sun and hiding their sidelong glances in the direction of the sweet-smelling smoke seeping out from the doors of the opium dens.
And when Lilla and Ada played at being grown up, they strolled down the gentle slope on the far side of Consulate Hill that slid into the higgledy-piggledy beachfront.
. . .