If there is one thing I like in a book it is that, in this case almost literally, it brings something new to the table. Be it a different spin on something, a subject to my attention that I haven’t thought about before or may even have written off, whatever the case a book with a quirk gets a big tick. As does a book with many layers, I love picking up a novel thinking it will be about one thing when really it is so much more Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband (which we will just call Season To Taste from now on) by Natalie Young is a book that does both of those things. It is a book about murder and cannibalism, the latter which I naturally would avoid, which is also a book about so much more. It might get a little squeamish in places, though it is most certainly worth it.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, in the garden of her country cottage Lizzie Prain hits her husband of thirty years over the head with a spade and kills him. Rather than ring the police, or simply bury his body in the garden or nearby woods Lizzie takes it upon herself to get rid of the body in another way, by eating it. By her calculations she can freeze it and eat it over the matter of a few weeks, maybe a month, and then go to Scotland and find a new life for herself. We follow her from recently murdering her husband until she is ready to consume the very last mouthful.
She opened up the freezer. His right hand, wrapped in a bin liner and labelled in marker pen on a sticky label, was at the top, in one of the removable wire baskets attached to the rim. It was resting on the bag that contained the left hand. The other parts were underneath the baskets, piled up and labelled in black bags, and mixed in with the frozen vegetables.
In a novel such as Season to Taste it would be very easy for the author to sensationalise it all, going to town on the horror of it all. One of the many things that I liked so much about Natalie Young’s second novel is that she never over dramatises the act of murder and cannibalism instead Young takes the more silent and subdued approach wrapping a shocking act firmly in reality. We follow Lizzie as she goes into some strange denial-meets-out of body functionality, one minute working out how on earth she can cook her husband before then working out where she can get a decent set or ten of rubber gloves – would the supermarket or the garden centre be more ideal? There is also a dark humour in moments like that too, dare I say one may chuckle as they ponder which they would go for?
Really though I don’t think cannibalism is the heart of what the story is about. Really it is about is Lizzie, and interestingly I still don’t think of Lizzie as a cannibal despite what she does (I do think of her as a real person though clearly) and at no point do you find what she has done is evil or despicable, in fact you just feel very sad for her. She encapsulates what it is like for anyone to be unhappy without really being aware they are until a sudden moment in their life, in a way it is about depression and how we know something isn’t right but we can’t work out what – as someone who has had depression on and off in the past I found how Natalie wrote this stunningly insightful. Lizzie was a woman whose husband was controlling. He wasn’t a man who punished her, though he may have been having an affair, he didn’t scream or shout and wasn’t violent, he was manipulative in other more silent ways and Lizzie became trapped, a victim of a safe marriage she so seemed to crave.
There was the time she’d found him trying to hang himself from a tree by standing on paint cans he’d put on the wall at the bottom of the garden. Possibly he’d been doing it for attention. He’d looked back at the house to see her standing in the kitchen window. Then, after a while, he’d given up. He’d let his neck out of the noose and come back in, smiling, to put the kettle on.
It also marvellously and rather emotionally, creates the feeling that I am sure many of us have had when we become aware that we are stuck in a rut. You have those feelings of despair and boredom yet simultaneously feel that you are safe and that being almost unsettlingly settled might actually be the best you can achieve in life. The when you break away from the rut and do something different or drastic the feelings of elation come, tinged with fear and a sense that maybe boring and stuck was the better option. I have not had these feelings as well evoked in a novel as I have in Season to Taste.
Really, and do bear with me when I say this, Season to Taste also a novel about grief and how it feels to lose someone, be it as they have left you, you have left them, simply vanished or have died – even if you killed them. You can be the one to end a relationship, just as you can if you have been deserted, and still feel the grief of its loss, the denial that it has happened and the mixture of fear and joy of what is coming ahead. This is depicted at its rawest as Lizzie tries to function in a new life of freedom following an old life of regulation.
Since Monday, then, Lizzie had worn the peg and sniffed menthol and eucalyptus. She had taken to standing in the shed where whiffs of her living husband were still in the air. There were three or four moments of pure denial this week when all senses agreed Jacob was still alive. She smelt him that afternoon in the shed, and then felt him as a breath at her neck at the kitchen table on Monday and Tuesday night. She even thought she’d seen him briefly in the garden, first thing on Wednesday morning, crouching over his hole.
How does Lizzie cope? Well you will have to read Season to Taste to find out but I can say that her coping mechanism is brought to us through a series of bullet points in the novel of some of the voices in Lizzie’s head after Jacob’s death. There is the angry vindicated voice ‘The world is full of parasites.’ There is the factual voice ‘It is going to take you less than a month. Think a fortnight. Think three weeks max.’ There is the practical and purposeful voice ‘All sorts of interesting recipes can be found on the internet.’ or ‘A bit of crispy celery might be nice.’ There is also that unbearably grief stricken voice ‘Put the dog’s bed in your bedroom if it helps you feel less alone.’ It is through these insights that we see all the complexities of Lizzie, even if no one else including herself can.
I hugely admire what Natalie Young has done with Season to Taste. It would have been easy with a subject like this to have gone for a really sensational and gory-for-sales novel. Yet instead she has creates a much more subtle and intricate tale of an average woman who has ended up in an average life and wishes she wasn’t and then acts on it in a moment of a breakdown. Don’t get me wrong, some of the book is not for the faint hearted and I wouldn’t advice reading it whilst eating (I may never see scrambled eggs in the same way again) but the rawness, yet sensitivity, of the subjects of grief, loss and despair are almost unbearably brilliant. It is also in many places deliciously darkly humorous, I giggled grimly all too often. So as you can probably tell I thoroughly recommend you spend time with Lizzie Prain, I won’t forget her in a hurry.
For more insights into Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband you can hear myself and Natalie in conversation on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here.