decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
[personal profile] decemberthirty
I finished reading As Meat Loves Salt last night. The reading experience was extraordinary: profound, all-consuming, in some ways almost as violent as the book itself. Maria McCann does not do things by half measures. Every characteristic of this book is the most: the battle scenes are the bloodiest, the sex is the most ardent, the loving moments are the tenderest, the anger is the bitterest, the pain exquisite. When she writes about a troubled character, he is tormented by the blackest demons imaginable. When she writes a book about obsession, the book will come to obsess me, lingering in my thoughts all day, every day, even when I'm not reading it. Reading this book, for me, was so intense that I can't quite say I liked it.


Let me first say that I had, for absolute ages, been searching for a book that would give me an intense, emotionally engaging reading experience. For something like a year and a half, I had been reading books that I enjoyed, that I thought were good, great, not so good, admirable in various ways, etc. But nothing that held me and would not let me go. I was starting to worry that I had lost the ability to get all tangled up in a story or to fall in love with a character. So I was glad, especially at first, to find myself drawn so powerfully into this book. And that intensity can be a little bit addictive--last night, when I put the book down, I didn't want to feel anything more in response to it; this afternoon, I feel an urge to crack it open again and transport myself back to some of my favorite scenes. Either that or to find something that can replace it, another book that can make me feel so much.

So: As Meat Loves Salt is the story of Jacob Cullen, and Jacob Cullen is messed up. He has violent fits of rage that he can't control, nightmares, spasms of intense jealousy and possessiveness, serious issues about women, about religion, about his younger brother--the list could go on. He believes himself superior to nearly everyone he meets, yet also suffers huge amounts of insecurity. He does bad things. Some of them are really bad. He seems compelled, again and again, to destroy anything that he loves. In a modern context, he might be considered a sociopath, but this isn't a modern context--it's the middle of the seventeenth century, so Jacob is simply a "bad angel," a hurt and hurtful man who is simultaneously full of pride and self-loathing. He is also our first-person narrator, and I am certain that spending nearly 600 pages inside his head did much to contribute to the intensity of the book. I know I would not find Jacob likeable in any way were I to spend time with him, yet I found him a powerfully compelling character. I spent much of the book wanting to love Jacob, to slap him, to teach him, to shout at him, to redeem him.

Jacob begins the book as a manservant, then flees and ends up in Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. In the army, Jacob finds himself drawn to a man named Ferris. Eventually they leave the army together and go to London to live in Ferris's house with his aunt. The relationship seems platonic at first, but it soon becomes clear that something more is going on. There was a long stretch of will-they-or-won't-they tension, which McCann drew out brilliantly and I loved. I live for that sort of thing. I read much of this section of the book on the beach while in Florida last week, and I kept getting up and walking down to the ocean, picking up shells and looking at birds, doing anything I could just to prolong the deliciousness. They will, of course; they do, and then they do it again and again. There is a lot of sex in this book, and I was amazed at how well McCann writes it. The heat between Jacob and Ferris is palpable.

And then, of course, we have to watch things unravel. I'm not sure at exactly what point I realized that this book couldn't possibly have a happy ending, but I know it was early. How can a man like Jacob live happily ever after? How could I have wanted him to, after seeing some of the things he did? Yet I did want that happy ending, Jacob and Ferris strolling off into the sunset.... Impossible. But I don't know quite what to make of the ending I got instead. I don't know how to read it. Jacob thinks that his long-estranged wife has returned and re-entered his life under a false name. Yet even when they are alone together, the woman insists she doesn't know him. He is convinced, though, and thinks of her as his wife, using his wife's name. This is nuts. Right? It couldn't possibly be her. I'm supposed to see this as evidence that Jacob is slipping into delusion, aren't I? And when he becomes convinced that Ferris is sleeping with her, that's just taking the delusion even further, isn't it? These developments seem so crazy that it's hard to believe they could actually be happening, but with Jacob as narrator I have only his perceptions to go on. I had not thought for a second that he was unreliable until the moment when he won't believe the woman telling him she's never seen him before. Then suddenly I had to question everything. Jacob spies on Ferris and this woman when they are in the woods and is convinced that he hears them together, Ferris begging her to touch him--if this is delusion, what is it that he actually hears?

On the last night that I read the book, I had a big chunk left and knew that my only choices were to sit and read it straight through or not to read it at all--I wouldn't have been able to pick it up again if I had put it down then. So I read it straight through, a horrified spectator, waiting to see just how bad things would get. And they get bad. Ugly. Yet (and this is where I start to sound crazy and a little bit masochistic, even to myself), I kind of expected (maybe even wanted?) them to be worse. I thought, in the lead up to the final events of the book, that machinations were afoot. There was ample opportunity for this in the form of anonymous letters, suspicious behavior, many different desires for different forms of revenge.... And yet it seems that those anonymous letters are meant to be taken at face value. The ending is terrible and crushing, but seemingly free of insidious intent. Jacob knowingly allows it to happen, but his role is essentially passive. There is something that felt somewhat strange about that. And Ferris? The last few chapters made me wonder if I had ever really understood him as a character, but perhaps that is an effect of the fact that I only ever saw him through Jacob, and maybe it was Jacob who had never understood him.

I did cry when I got to the final lines. They are devastating, after all, but that wasn't entirely it. It was almost like fifteen seconds of hot tears simply because I didn't know what else to do with all of the feelings the book had aroused in me. And now I have written all this and still feel that there are more thoughts that haven't been expressed, thoughts that I am groping for in the chaos left behind by As Meat Loves Salt.


I was moving across your frozen veneer
The sky was dark but you were clear
Could you feel my footsteps?
And would you shatter, would you shatter? Would you?

Date: 2015-02-22 07:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lusimeles.livejournal.com
a;klfdsj picking up a copy of this for sure.

Date: 2015-02-22 08:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
Ha ha--hope you like it! It clearly put me through the wringer. I'd love to hear about what you think once you've read it.

Date: 2015-02-23 11:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lusimeles.livejournal.com
i didn't end up reading after the cut, but anything that is bursting with sex without actually being about sex in a really tawdry/explicit way is basically muh faaaaaaaaaaaave.

Date: 2015-02-22 07:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nagylany.livejournal.com
You can feel the depths& intensity of your read of this book in your entry about it. Whew. I'm curious now.

Date: 2015-02-22 08:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
This is definitely the kind of post that would make me curious if I read it from someone else! I'm certainly not sorry that I read the book--it was worth this feeling of being a little strung out afterwards. But I wouldn't recommend to anyone who is easily disturbed or who happens to be going through a fragile time!

Date: 2015-02-22 08:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rachel2205.livejournal.com
I need to reread it! It completely gripped me & tore me up, too. It's intimate in so many violent ways...

i was so excited that after several years, McCann had a new novel out. Unfortunately, it isn't anywhere nearly as intense!

Date: 2015-02-23 03:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
You're braver than I am--I put it down and almost immediately thought, "I don't think I'll put myself through that again!" But I'm sure that's because the wounds were fresh, and several years from now I might feel differently. :)

It's a shame her second book is not as powerful. Was it good anyway?

(Also, what's the source of that lovely image in your icon, if you don't mind my asking?)

Date: 2015-02-26 12:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rachel2205.livejournal.com
I'm afraid icon-wise it was just a photo I found randomly when looking for ballet/dance related things... It's sweet, though, isn't it?

Ace, King, Knave is a three-and-a-half star read, I found. Engaging enough to keep me reading. It was frustrating because it had a lot of potential that seemed to fizzle out, which is a shame as I was excited to see it was a book with two female protagonists. It's worth checking out, but it doesn't have any of the visceral impact of AMLS.

Date: 2015-02-26 04:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
Thanks for telling me about the book. It's shame it doesn't live up to her first, but I suppose that As Meat Loves Salt would be a difficult act to follow! I'll put Ace, King, Knave on my list and perhaps I'll get to it one of these days....

Date: 2015-02-22 09:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tatjna.livejournal.com
It's been a couple of years since I was torn up by a fiction, and that was a videogame. Definitely reading this thanks to your review.

Date: 2015-02-23 04:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
Hope you enjoy it! And I'd love to know what you think once you've read it.

Date: 2015-06-21 08:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tatjna.livejournal.com
I finished this last night, and agree with almost everything you've written about it. It'll haunt me for a long time, I think.

My overall impression ended up being that Jacob is not so much a sociopath, as a man struggling with something bordering on schizophrenia in a time when such things weren't yet defined. Thus, he's an unreliable narrator from the start. Hints are dropped (with the Voice and with his sometimes amazingly gymnastic rationalisations) but it doesn't dawn until the very end when he's obviously becoming delusional. The thing that convinced me is that Ferris is clearly not interested in women - he even says as much at one point - and yet Jacob has him sleeping with Caro/Jane within days of their 'falling out'.

I also had a little trouble with Ferris being so close to Fenris to read - Fenris being a main character of the same physical description in the last piece of fiction that gripped me like that, which also happened to be about a messed-up relationship between men.

But yes. Big emotions, deliciously felt. I am impressed with an author who can make me empathise with someone so unlikeable, and want him to have a happy ending even as I see him wrecking it for himself.

Date: 2015-06-21 10:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tatjna.livejournal.com
I finished this last night, and agree with almost everything you've written about it. It'll haunt me for a long time, I think.

My overall impression ended up being that Jacob is not so much a sociopath, as a man struggling with something bordering on schizophrenia in a time when such things weren't yet defined. Thus, he's an unreliable narrator from the start. Hints are dropped (with the Voice and with his sometimes amazingly gymnastic rationalisations) but it doesn't dawn until the very end when he's obviously becoming delusional. The thing that convinced me is that Ferris is clearly not interested in women - he even says as much at one point - and yet Jacob has him sleeping with Caro/Jane within days of their 'falling out'.

I also had a little trouble with Ferris being so close to Fenris to read - Fenris being a main character of the same physical description in the last piece of fiction that gripped me like that, which also happened to be about a messed-up relationship between men.

But yes. Big emotions, deliciously felt. I am impressed with an author who can make me empathise with someone so unlikeable, and want him to have a happy ending even as I see him wrecking it for himself.

Date: 2015-02-22 09:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] boywhocameback.livejournal.com
This sounds really good, I think I must read it!

Date: 2015-02-23 04:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
It was a bit emotionally exhausting, but worth it, I think. I'd love to know what you think if you read it!

Date: 2015-02-23 05:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] boywhocameback.livejournal.com
I just ordered it from Amazon yesterday. I rarely find anything interesting to read these days so I'm quite excited to give it a go! From what I read about it everyone seems to say it's really upsetting and emotionally challenging - makes me want to see my reaction. Can a book really mess up people so badly? (Hmm, then again it took me a year to recover from reading The Vampire Lestat which is popular fiction and considered an easy read, lol.)

Date: 2015-02-26 05:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
Well, I'll be very interested to know what you make of it. The emotional response to a book can be so different from one person to the next. Perhaps this one will push your personal buttons and perhaps it won't.... Regardless, I hope you enjoy it!

Date: 2015-02-23 09:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] denorios.livejournal.com
I need to re-read this, I think - it's been too long for me to really remember any details. I do remember finishing the book in much the same kind of mood - really quite shaken and disturbed. And I remember it didn't end well!

Date: 2015-02-23 04:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
You're the second person in this post to mention re-reading it, which is sort of funny because as soon as I put it down I thought, "I'm not sure I'll re-read this one--I can't put myself through THAT again!!" But I'm sure I'll feel differently once some time has passed and the memories aren't quite so fresh. :)

Date: 2015-02-23 11:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] arwen-of-lorien.livejournal.com
I'm not gonna read your review as you totally got me intrigued by this book. Now I'm even more excited to read it. :D

Date: 2015-02-23 04:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
Hope you enjoy it! I'd love to hear what you think once you've read it.

Date: 2015-09-11 02:23 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] incandescent.livejournal.com
OH GOD. *fans self*

I came here to check you out, and I have to say you're brilliant, because As Meat Loves Salt was one of the best books I read last year. It was absolutely amazing. So thick and brutal, so beautiful, exhilarating. It's such a hard book to describe. I need to reread it, because the ending never quite sat right to me. I wanted more. More retribution for Jacob, who was so horrible, and more depth for Ferris. I love this book so much that I bought it gave it to a friend for the holidays. How splendid it is. Oh, I don't have words.

Date: 2015-09-11 03:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
It is the sort of book that can take your words away, isn't it? I'm not sure I can think of anything else I've read as an adult that felt as intense as this. I agree with you about the ending not sitting quite right--a shame, since everything that comes before is so powerful.

Anyway, thank you for dropping by and glad to make your acquaintance!

Date: 2015-09-12 01:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] incandescent.livejournal.com
God, I think I should reread it. It does seem like the kind of text that needs multiple looks to become sensible.

I'm glad to make yours! I can't wait to chat more!
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