Jay Rayner: ‘My mother was flabbergasted by my second novel’

As his second novel, Day of Atonement, is re-released as an e-book, the food critic tells Alex Bellotti why its Jewish nature even took him by surprise.

As you might expect, Jay Rayner doesn’t do fasting. Having established himself as one of Britain’s star food critics at the Observer, religious self-discipline hardly goes hand-in-hand with the day job, but the writer’s studious atheism offers a simpler reason for such refusal.

It comes as a surprise, therefore, when presented with a copy of his second novel, Day of Atonement, to find such a patently obvious connection to ‘cultural’ Jewry. First released in 1998, the story is being republished this month as an e-book to coincide with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and its creator admits even he was taken aback by its cultural slant.

“I was a little surprised when I re-read the book at the depth of some of that stuff,” says Rayner. “But I wasn’t quite as surprised as my own mother (the late journalist Claire Rayner), who was absolutely flabbergasted by this book.

“She was even more anti-religion than I am – she was very devoutly atheist and was president of the Humanist Association – and then her 30-year-old son goes and publishes this whacking lump of Judaica. She liked it very much, but did say, ‘I just have no idea where this comes from’.”

The explanation lies in Rayner’s childhood years living in Harrow. Despite growing up in a family who adamantly rejected their religious Jewish heritage, most of his friends were made while attending a Jewish summer camp. As a result, he found himself re-entering their world culturally, particularly falling in love with its culinary tradition.

Day of Atonement is in many ways a reflection of this childhood. Nominated upon its release for the Jewish Quarterly Prize for Fiction, it tells the story of two boys, Mal Jones and Solly Princeton, who meet down the side of a synagogue in north west London and decide to set up a business based around the former’s chicken soup recipe. As the pair’s success eventually spawns a world-beating restaurant and hotel empire, greed splits their friendship apart, with the resultant downfall fittingly coming to a head on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

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“A lot of the writing about the Jewish community in Britain is from a very intellectual perspective. They seem to be angst ridden characters afloat on the sea of the 21st century,” explains Rayner, who once also spent a short time at the Ham&High as a theatre critic.

“Lots of it is very good and very introspective – obviously Howard Jacobson is brilliant, Bernice Rubens in her pomp was brilliant and Frederic Raphael has done it over the years. But that wasn’t my experience; the reality was I grew up in north west London, I met almost all my friends at a Jewish youth group summer camp, and then spent vast amounts of my adolescence hanging out in Stanmore and Edgware. I wanted to give a voice to that in as fond a way as I possibly could, but on as big a canvas as I possibly could.”

Full of his typically verbose humour and pointed social observations, Day of Atonement was, for Rayner, a landmark chapter in his career; the “first major bit of writing of the grown up writer – if that doesn’t sound too wanky, which it probably does”.

While he was already working for the Observer when he began writing it, he wasn’t in any way a food journalist. Even then, though, he believes the writing was on the wall. “Even I find it slightly baffling – I look at this book and go, ‘Well for God’s sake, of course you were going to start writing about food – this book has food in practically every chapter and every page. It’s a very foody novel, though I hope also it would be a marker as to where I was going, because the food isn’t there for pornographic reasons; it arises out of what these two kids do in their business. It’s there for functional reasons.”

He continues: “I’m very suspicious of food appearing in fiction as a metaphor for anything. Food should be itself, food should be dinner, and if you don’t find that sexy then I’m not the writer for you.”

Food does, I suggest, seem a particular prism through which Rayner can understand the world.

“Well yes, by the time I became a food writer – shortly after this book was published – what I saw in it was a subject that goes into every aspect of your life. It’s about politics, sex and emotion, history and family, and how we relate to the world.

“Everything is there – you sit someone down at a restaurant table with me and I will soon know what kind of a person they are. Because of the way they interact with the menu and the choices, you can tell the pretty ones from the enthusiastic ones, the greedy ones from the parsimonious. It’s all there waiting at a restaurant table.”

Dubbed ‘Acid Rayner’ for his most scalding reviews, the writer recently returned from the Edinburgh Festival, where he staged a show talking about his worst restaurant experiences. “We want to see our fallibility reflected back at us,” he remarks about our perverse fascination with public failure. “We want to feel that those bad experiences we have in life are shared by others. God help us and save us from anyone who floats through life on air.”

Now back in his hometown of Brixton, Rayner is looking forward to his novel’s re-release as an e-book, and explains how digital publishing is increasingly bringing authors’ back catalogues back from the wilderness. To celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the book will also be temporarily free to download, but he will stop short of holding his own day of atonement.

“I haven’t been to shul for years and I think it would be quite hypocritical of me to start now. So no, I won’t be observing the high holy days, I never do; I’ll be observing the Amazon results,” he laughs guiltily.

Evidently, however, that famous cynicism often hides more than a little affection.

Day of Atonement by Jay Rayner will be free to download as an e-book on September 13-14, then available for £1.99 on Amazon