Book review: The Baker's Alchemy

The Baker’s Alchemy ‒ published by Blackheath’s Brandl and Schlesinger ‒ is Leura author John Stephenson’s second novel.

Book launch: Leura author John Stephenson’s second novel.

Book launch: Leura author John Stephenson’s second novel.

Stephenson is a well-known and widely respected teacher and mentor of creative writing who has helped many aspiring authors in their quest for publication and readership.

Stephenson’s first opus, The Optimist, is based on the early years of the iconic Australian poet, Christopher Brennan, and is set in rural Goulburn at a turn-of- the-century Catholic boy’s boarding school.

This book proved to be successful in dealing with the vagaries of forbidden love and its consequences.

The new novel, The Baker’s Alchemy, also has at its core the central themes of romance and difficult liaisons except, and with painstaking authentic detail, this book is set in Poland and weaves a dense story of magic laced with ancient European ‒ and specifically ‒ Polish beliefs and traditions.

At the heart of both The Optimist and The Baker’s Alchemy is the concept of a trysting-place where lovers can go to get away from prying eyes or interference. In The Baker’s Alchemy this is largely due to the baker, Ignacy Wadowski’s, ingestion of the white witch Oaky Ester’s brew whereby, for a brief period, he can present himself as a stranger, a young lover who by clever subterfuge can achieve interludes of bliss with his much younger and unwitting wife, Jadwiga, who so far has not consummated the match.

But being a good Pole he is also worried about the morality: is it adultery? The story goes into another gear when the Wadowski family help with the catering at a dinner party given by a local count. Things get out of hand in a madcap and very funny way, leaving the guests somewhat bewildered by what has happened.

There are many beautifully drawn characters: the ballooning fanatics; the baker’s dog, Duke Wellie, and the baker’s pet Australian white cockatoo, Kostek, who communicate freely with each other and, in particular the forest-dwelling, potion-brewing white witch who is addictively interested in the baker’s gingerbread men. Other colourful characters include Wadowski’s son, Kazimierz and his cronies; indeed the narrative is peppered with many, many more outrageous players in a Mozart-like, operatic fantasy.

This is a truly hilarious book, very well written and most enjoyable. I found myself reading aloud to my partner great slabs of  Stephenson’s glorious prose, ripe with clever wit and marvellous word-play. Be warned, if you pick it up to read you honestly won’t be able to put it down. Like one of the baker’s piquant gingerbread men, it is a pure delight! Note: the magic potion recipe is not included in the text. Pity!

Ideal for the book-lover’s Christmas stocking.

  • “The Baker’s Alchemy” by John Stephenson, Brandl and Schlesinger, November 2017. RRP $29.95