Playing Sardines (2001), the collection in which the short story of the same name appears, is Michèle Roberts’s second independently authored collection of short stories. Chronologically and thematically it may be considered alongside Roberts’s most recent novels, including The Looking Glass (2000), The Mistressclass (2003), and Reader, I Married Him (2005). These texts are distinguished by their sensuous language, particularly with regard to food, and although Roberts’s use of religious themes is still apparent, it is much less prominent than in her earlier works. According to Sarah Sceats, Roberts “evokes food almost as a constituent of female sensuousness and contingency, suggesting a knowledge and understanding more visceral than cerebral” (127). In many of Roberts’s texts food preparation and enjoyment serve as a vehicle through which women explore their identities. In particular, her stories often link food to the construction of national identity and expose the difficulties inherent in navigating two cultural backgrounds. Roberts herself is half English and half French, and from this personal experience she is able to construct characters who must straddle two cultures with opposing expectations. This struggle ultimately strengthens the character’s sense of identity.
“Playing Sardines” describes a young Englishwoman’s experiences in Italy as the wife of an architectural historian. It is written in the style of a love story, but the amorous exchange occurs not between the husband and wife but rather between the woman and the Italian culinary arts. As she patrols the markets for food and art brut, her husband pursues his latest female conquest. The narrator lacks the sophistication he desires in a wife: She wears the wrong clothes and does not possess the mannerisms of a proper signora. She, in turn, feels that there is an impersonal distance between her husband and his food that represents his lack of understanding of its true beauty. She is more comfortable in the kitchen with the village women and the livery boy, where the connection to the food is more visceral and therefore more real. Ultimately she returns to England as a single woman but with a greater understanding of herself.
In this story, Roberts draws an explicit connection between food and the human body. “Playing sardines” refers both to the tedious process of opening a tin of sardines and a child’s game in which bodies pile on top of one another in the dark. Within the language of the text, there is a strong contrast between the narrator’s meticulous observation of details and her husband’s sweeping generalizations about Palladian architecture. She transgresses Italian custom at the level of the dinner guest but finds a more visceral connection with Italian food in the kitchen. It is this connection that she retains as part of her identity when she returns to England.
Roberts, Michèle. Food, Sex, and God: On Inspiration and Writing. London: Virago, 1998.
———. Playing Sardines. London: Virago, 2001.
Sceats, Sarah. Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.