Haunted, February 27, 2013

'As Meat Loves Salt' Maria McCann

*****

I finished this novel a good month ago, and knew I wanted to review it, but I was so blasted by it that I couldn't get my head together to do it. I thought that in a few days I'd get a grip, but it didn't, and to be honest I still haven't, so I think I'll just go for it. And BTW there are a few spoilers in here, so read at your own risk!

First of all, I should say that those five stars up there might be misleading. Amazon translates them as 'I Love It' and I'm not sure that I do. I have enormous respect for the author for taking on such an ambitious project, and doing so well by it. I think the writing and world building are fantastic, the characterizations fascinating, the whole premise enormously compelling. But it's all also deeply disturbing, and I feel more haunted by it than enamored.

Why? Well, that's where I lose the plot a bit...

Actually, the plot is ostensibly simple: two soldiers meet in Cromwell's army, run away to London, fall in love and into an impossible affair that ultimately destroys them. So far, so gay Mills & Boon. Except that it's not. For one thing, every stage of the plot is given a luxurious amount of time to develop. I'm aware that a lot of readers disliked this and felt it made the novel drag as a whole, but I liked the fact that it wasn't just a war story, or a romance, or a domestic drama, but all of them, and none of them. They were all given equal air-time, all aspects fleshed out.

The only part of the plot I didn't like was the last bit in the Diggers' colony, probably because it was so obviously going to fail, and because it was the wedge that drove Jacob and Christopher apart. But then again, there's something to be said for the very deliberate, awful inevitability of it. The (maybe) re-introduction of Caro at the end also left a bad taste in my mouth. On one hand, I'd been expecting it since the horrific scene where we leave her at the beginning. But the way the author used it seemed a bit facile and rushed - the only part of the plot for me that did.

As a historical novel, it doesn't really get better than this. Throughout, the historical detail is meticulously drawn, from the barbaric slaughterhouse of a Reformation battlefield, to the gorgeous love-letter, to what's on the breakfast table. This, too, seems to have earned McCann criticism, but personally, I thought it made for a very rich world that I was sad to leave. It's an unusual time period in fiction too - the only novel I've read that comes close to McCann's photo-realistic portrayal of 17th century England is Geraldine Brooks' 'Year of Wonders' (which is another must read, btw, as long as you ignore the absurd epilogue.)

The love story at the heart of the novel is compelling too. Though McCann uses a number of romance-novel tropes (looong reveals, painful delays, soul-eating guilt, Heathcliffish hair-tearing) and though it's clear from the moment Jacob and Christopher meet that it isn't going to end well, their story is still completely gripping. And even though it's obviously going to be a train wreck, I wouldn't even call the ending predictable. I guessed fairly early on what was going to happen to the two main characters, but I was way off about *how* it would happen. Which I love in a novel!

I think the thing that hangs most people up about this book, and likely the reason it got under my skin to the extent that it did, is Jacob's mental state. I hesitate to say madness, in the same way I hesitate to brand him a horrible person, even though it seems most readers are firmly in one camp or the other. There's no doubt that Jacob does a lot of awful things, and never seems to learn from his remorse in the aftermath, but somehow I couldn't just dismiss him as bad. Likewise, though he talks about hearing voices and he's clearly paranoid, I think it's too simple to ascribe everything he does to schizophrenia or some other mental illness.

My personal theory about why he was so angry and destructive is one I haven't seen come up in other discussions, and is based on one tiny, crucial and apparently overlooked reference in his conversation with Zeb in London. Zeb is describing the day that Jacob beat him (and maybe more) in the orchard, he says that when Jacob attacked him he said something along the lines of, 'Now father's gone, I have to take his place.' Which I construed to mean not just that their father had beaten Jacob, but also, assuming Zeb's suggestion of sexual abuse is true, then their father probably sexually abused Jacob, too. Which would explain a whole lot about his anger, memory holes, lack of empathy, sensitivity to what he perceives as betrayal, etc.

But in the mind games, there's also Christopher to consider. A lot of reviewers describe him as a good man, but I don't think that does his character any more justice than calling Jacob a bad one. Christopher is a golden boy, grew up wealthy and indulged by his aunt, apparently did more or less what he liked. It's clear by the way that he's treated in the army that he's charismatic, and used to getting what he wants from people. I was beginning to suspect that his halo might not be quite so shiny, and that he might actually be a bit manipulative, when he threw over Nat. This is a young boy who's been devoted to him and whom he's presumably encouraged as a lover, but he abandons him in the night to run away with Jacob, apparently on a whim. At which point I decided Christopher was definitely manipulative, also self-serving and fickle, and possibly a lot more interesting than he initially seemed. It's important to remember, too, that Christopher is only shown to us through Jacob's eyes - and how reliable is that view? That's a large part of what makes this book maddeningly compelling, I think - that like so much else in what happens to Jacob, we'll never know the true story.

I think, though, that what got to me most about this book was that despite everything, the author still made me desperately want Jacob and Christopher to be together. Even though I knew it was never going to happen, I kept hoping they'd find a way to live happily ever after until the moment they destroyed each other. And a month later, I still find myself obsessing about it. So I guess that's why this book gets five stars, even though I still feel vaguely traumatized by it: this is that rare story that grabs you, and won't let go.

By sarah on 09 November 2013 |