Book Review: Map of Another Town, by M.F.K. Fisher

Best known for her food writing, in Map of Another Town the American writer M.F.K. Fisher takes us on a virtual tour of the French town of Aix-en-Provence. She first moved there not long after the Second World War, taking her two young daughters with her, and this book covers two periods of the family living in Aix.

Fisher
covers many aspects of living in Aix and paints a vivid portrait of the town
and its inhabitants. We meet various people, from her inimitable landlady
Madame Lanes and her head servant Fernande, to the stately waiter Ange, who
works at The Glacier where Fisher and her children often eat. Mary and Anne,
her daughters, are ever present in the book and we see them growing up through
the two periods of residence, which took place some years apart. When the
Fisher family first moved to Aix the effects of the Second World War were still
being keenly felt, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the townspeople.

Describing
Madame Lanes, she writes: “She was on guard when I first knew her, wary but
conscious of the fact that she had survived the Occupation (which was really
three: German, then Italian, then American) and had escaped trouble in sprite
of being such a staunch worker on the Underground for all of its duration. She
was remote and hard … When I saw her next, in 1959, she was younger. A year
later she was younger still.”

The
book is structured into twenty chapters, each of which concentrates on a
particular theme, such as the lively main street in the town, or the two cafés
that Fisher and her daughters frequent. Most chapters are subsequently split
into three or four shorter essays, all loosely linked by the chapter’s theme. I
really like the way the book is structured. The reader is taken back and forth
through time, and is able to wander around the town with certain characters
crossing our paths time and again, like old friends. One minute you are
wandering down the Cours Mirabeau listening to the great fountains, the next
you might be stepping down carefully down the narrow, slightly eerie Passage
Agard, where the daughters think they are being haunted by a gypsy woman.

Regular
readers of Fisher’s work will be used to her delectable food writing and there
are some delightful flashes of it in Map
of Another Town
– she can make even the simplest ham baguette sound
absolutely delicious. Describing one of the great pastry shops in the town, she
writes: “the shop always smelled right, not confused and stuffy but delicately
layered: fresh eggs, fresh sweet butter, grated nutmeg, vanilla beans, old kirsch,
newly ground almonds…” If I close my eyes, I am transported into that bakery
and I can smell it.

What really works for me in this book isn’t just Fisher’s writing (full disclosure: I was already a big fan of hers) but the way she takes us off the beaten track and away from the tourist attractions, really introducing us to the life and the heartbeat of the place. We meet doctors, tramps, priests, neighbours, students, shop owners and more, all of whom are described with intimacy and in Fisher’s trademark style. I have never been to Aix but after reading Fisher’s descriptions and after tracing her own personal map around the city, I would love to visit there myself and seek out some of these places – and ultimately create my own map of this town.

Map of Another Town is out now from Daunt Books.