Hello Book Lover,
“Scavengers, Tanners, Stuffed Heads, Game Reserves, Special Meat.” Intrigued? You should be!
‘Tender is the Flesh’ was on my ‘Ones to Watch in 2020’ blog post (which you can read here – Ones to Watch in 2020. ). I read the synopsis in the Pushkin Press Catalogue and thought it sounded really intriguing. Now, I don’t really read horror books, I am a huge scaredy cat, so I was prepared for it to be dark and a bit grim, but wow, just wow! Agustina Bazterrica has raised the bar for dystopian modern horror writing and then some with this 219 page cracker.
The instant I picked up this book, the churn in my stomach started, already I was preparing myself for it to be a hellscape that potentially I wouldn’t be able to see to the end. However, what I actually got was a stunning story of loneliness, love, loss and what happens when your morals and ethical code are tested to their limits, all of which was translated perfectly by Sarah Moses.
Agustina Bazterrica’s writing style deftly navigates the reader to the present day where a virus has wiped out all animals and now a “special meat” is eaten. The special meat referred to is human meat, legally reared, and slaughtered, these ‘heads’ are eaten in every household. It’s a sinister concept but an absolute genius idea – the story, not eating human meat you understand! I found myself questioning, “could this actually happen?”, “what would happen if meat was no longer available? Could humans be driven to consuming human meat?” and asking friends and family members “what would you do if?….” This book has raised so many questions personally about my relationship with eating meat, I spent a large amount of time debating some of this with my husband and couldn’t reach a concrete solution, it would make an excellent book club choice.
Marcos, our lead character works in one of the leading Slaughter houses, it’s got a fantastic reputation at producing the best meat on the market. Marcos struggles with the world which is now his reality since losing his son, he no longer eats meat and his wife has left the house they share and is staying with her mother. His father is in the grip of dementia and Marcos’ wages pays to keep him in a facility where he is well cared for and although he has a sister, she has little to do with her brother and father, she lives on the other side of town with her twin children. Marcos’ niece and nephew are unnerving to say the least; their secret language, little nods and looks and discussions around how their uncle would taste!
There was a cast of characters who set me on edge, if it wasn’t Marcos’ twin niece and nephew, it was Dr Valka in her experimental nightmare hospital or the Romanian Game Reserve keeper Urlet with his wall of mounted heads, silent, uneasy presence and unusally long fingernmails which left the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.
All of which further cemented this book as a very clever and articulate modern dystopian horror story.
‘Tender is the Flesh’ is in two parts, I admit I read the first part and felt relieved, feeling myself say ‘this isn’t as bad as I feared, I can now stomach horror as a genre’. Then there is the second part which is a whole different ball game altogether! I found it a lot harder to swallow (no pun intended) than the first, it was more graphic and there was a definite shift in how people were depicted. It seemed that they were becoming increasingly brutal, savage and the overall impact was pretty terrifying. The frenzy that people would experience if they didn’t have their fix of meat and the human sacrifices by the church group all contributed to the shift in the atmosphere of the book and ultimately Marcos’ final decision (which I am not going to spoil!)
While reading this book I was reminded of my psychology lectures at university. We looked at group experiments where people fell in line with one another and a ‘mob mentality’ overruled the usual human behaviours of compassion, morals and the difference between right and wrong.
‘Tender is the Flesh’ is a fresh dystopian modern day horror story. It is dark in places, very dark, however it is one of the most original and exciting pieces of writing that I have had the pleasure of reading in recent years. It is one that will stay with me for a long time and continue to be a topic of discussion. ‘Tender is the Flesh’ is published by Pushkin Press and is out on Thursday 6th February.