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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Season To Taste (Or How To Eat Your Husband)

Posted: 15 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

NATALIE Young's second novel features what at first seems to be an ordinary, unassuming protagonist: Lizzie Prain is a 53-year-old housewife who lives with her husband of 30 years, Jacob, out in the sticks in Surrey, England. She likes cooking and has a small home business making cakes.

The first hint of something strange comes in how Lizzie avoids her neighbours, leading a reclusive life even though she longs for company. You see, underneath her quiet demeanour, Lizzie silently rages at Jacob. And the way she deals with that rage is to hit the Jacob in the back of his head with a spade while he is obliviously tending the garden one fine day.

Young does not make it clear why Lizzie is angry with Jacob. Could it be his affair and his drug use with Joanne in London? Or his habit of going to a gentlemen's club to have sleazy fun with young girls? Perhaps his blatant use of money on cheap sexual thrills when they are facing financial constraints? Lizzie herself does not know, and Young does not explain. Like messy real life, Lizzie's anger is a combination of things that leads to one act of violence resulting in Jacob's demise in the book's very first chapter.

From then on, the novel becomes a mix of poignancy, hopefulness, and the macabre, with a couple of recipes thrown in for good measure. Why recipes? Well, with Jacob's corpse lying in the garden and Lizzie's determination not to go to prison for her deed, she decides to ... eat her husband, as the book's title intimates. And Young does not squirm away from describing how Lizzie dismembers Jacob's body and stores the parts (in labelled garbage bags) in the deep freezer.

Though not entirely graphic, Young's descriptions have Lizzie treating Jacob's body parts as though they are everyday ingredients used in cooking: "The heart was larger than she'd expected, slightly bigger than her fist. It was like holding a root ball. She removed the tendons, tubes and tougher flaps of skin around the edge. These she would give to the dog." Ordinary, to the point of being mundane, this is just Lizzie preparing a meal.

Not that Young doesn't know how to make her audience squirm, effectively wielding moments of warped gothic humour. For instance, when the time comes for Lizzie to devour Jacob's arms, Young has her clean Jacob's nails first, then shave the hair off before marinating them and popping them into the microwave....

Those with strong stomachs may find some poignancy in Lizzie's act of eating her husband. This could be her way of remaining close to Jacob before nature calls and parts of Jacob gets flushed away, wiped from Lizzie's memory and from existence.

While the bulk of the novel is narrated in the third person, the story also delves into Lizzie's head, with her thoughts given as a list of things she must do in order to live her life free from the burdens of her husband, the judgement of society and the punishment of the law.

There is also a third voice in the novel: Tom, a 20something neighbour who Lizzie had babysat when he and his siblings were younger. Through Tom, an element of hope is introduced, with the younger man longing to be with a woman in her 50s. It is also through Tom that readers get to see Lizzie toying with the idea of being with someone who may actually love her, as opposed to Jacob, who did not show much affection.

This relationship – be it romantic on Tom's part, lustful/lonely on her part, or just platonic on both their parts – has Lizzie behaving in an uncertain and slightly imbalanced manner. In fact, Tom's narration paints Lizzie as someone who can be downright rash. Yet, Lizzie's list illustrates a strong woman determined to follow through on her actions (eating her husband). And then there is Young's third person narrative that shows a woman at odds with herself, and with her surroundings.

So which Lizzie is the "real" one? I feel that the inconsistencies is Young's way of presenting Lizzie as being unsure of herself and what she actually wants.

Flawed, emotionally unattractive and obviously psychologically unsound, Lizzie Prain is a not very likeable person, and readers would be hard pressed to feel sorry for her. By keeping her flawed, Young has created a more humane – and arguably more realistic – character in Lizzie. Her backstory with Jacob also paints him as an unlikable character, which made it extremely hard for this reviewer to feel bad for what happens to him.

The flaw in this novel, I feel, is the interaction between Lizzie and Tom: it is not made clear why Tom develops feelings for Lizzie. Though, to be fair, Lizzie is awkward in all communications with other people, including Joanna, the third person in her marriage.

I could see shades of Roald Dahl's macabre short story for adults, Lamb To The Slaughter (1953), in Young's novel, but overall, Season To Taste is a tale on its own, with its own take on the aftermath of the end of a marriage, and a wife's last rites to show her husband her love and devotion by cooking and eating him.

That said, this may not be the novel for everyone – particularly those who are faint of heart and have squeamish stomachs.

Season To Taste has been touted as The Book of 2014 by various publishing industry sources. Though books that are hyped before release usually do not meet expectations, Season To Taste has delivered what is expected of it: a tale worth devouring.

The People In The Trees

Posted: 10 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Power and its abuses are at the heart of Hanya Yanagihara's beautifully written debut.

ANY analysis of human behaviour is, among other things, an assertion of power over those whose behaviour is being analysed. Perhaps for that reason, the field of anthropology has seen its fair share of scandal, from the case of Napoleon Chagnon – who was accused of spreading disease among the Amazonian tribe he was studying – to Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, the inspiration behind Hanya Yanagihara's debut novel The People In The Trees.

Power and its abuses are at the heart of this richly imagined novel, both in form and subject matter.

The framing device brings up questions of authorial control, of editing and excision: the novel purports to offer the memoirs of a Nobel prizewinning convicted paedophile, Dr Norton Perina, as edited and annotated by his acolyte Ronald Kubodera.

In 1950, Perina – very loosely based on Nobel prizewinner Gajdusek – joins an anthropological expedition bound for the imaginary Micronesian island nation U'ivu.

There, he discovers a lost tribe of "dreamers" – exceptionally long-lived and acutely senile individuals.

Later, he discovers that the secret to the dreamers' longevity is the flesh of a turtle called the opa'ivu'eke, which is ingested upon an U'ivuan's 60th birthday. Perina smuggles an opa'ivu'eke sample back to America, publishes his findings, and achieves instant renown.

That's only the first part of the story, of course. The remainder of Perina's memoirs detail the cost of physical but not mental immortality, the destruction of the Edenic island that gave him his fame, and his long fall from grace.

In structure and subject, The People In The Trees pays tribute to Vladimir Nabokov's two masterpieces:Pale Fire and Lolita. But where Nabokov's megalomaniacal Charles Kinbote constantly threatens to overwhelm John Shade's manuscript, Kudobera is a more reverent custodian of Perina's work.

Perina's voice – wry, superior, unthinkingly cruel – is one of the key triumphs of the book.

Another triumph is the astonishingly thorough invention of Yanagihara's Micronesian country.

The specificity of the world she creates – flora and fauna all described in the necessarily precise language of a scientist – allows for the fantastical revelation of the opa'ivu'eke's extraordinary properties. And while sexual abuse is a key strand of her story, it is the rape of this physical place – culturally, ecologically, linguistically – that gives Perina's conscience pause.

The novel contains a critique of Western imperialism, even as it acknowledges the familiarity of that narrative.

Most effectively, Kubodera's footnotes show the institutions of knowledge as tools of imperial power.

The peer-reviewed articles, book publications and laboratory studies populating the footnotes are as much responsible for shaping the destiny of U'ivu as the pharmaceutical companies that eventually descend on the islands in search of profit.

Yanagihara makes multiple literary references in her work, but the underpinning one is the Garden of Eden, the story of paradise, temptation and innocence lost.

On one level, Yanagihara is telling a story about the corruption of knowledge and, more specifically, language.

Perina relates the acquisition of English by the island's natives: "How you?' asked Uva, smiling proudly, and this – his newly acquired English, and his pride in it – made my skin prickle ... the enormity of the island's changes loomed large and clear in my mind."

In prison Perina has recourse to nothing except language, in all its invention and complicity.

If his narrative doesn't reach Humbert Humbert's heights of fancy and self-loathing, or Kinbote's baroque mania, Perina's story remains both striking and highly satisfying. Yanagihara's ambitious debut is one to be lauded. – Guardian News & Media


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