As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann
Originally published 2001
Harcourt Books, 1st printing, 2002
Genre: historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: It’s 1645, and England has been torn apart by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the Cavaliers as they battle for control of the country. Despite the scorched earth policy in many areas, there are pockets of relative peace. One such pocket is the manor of Beaurepair, where Jacob Cullen and his brothers Izzy and Zeb labor as servants. Once sons of gentleman, they have come down in the world, but hold places of security at Beaurepair; Jacob is betrothed to fellow servant Caro, a favorite of the mistress, and they will have places so long as they need them. Only, Beaurepair’s situation isn’t quite so idyllic: the Roches are Catholic, the servants read pamphlets about the evils of tyranny, a maidservant has gone missing, and a body is found in the pond. On ethe very eve of his wedding, Jacob must confess murder to his brothers and run away with an unwitting Caro. From the relative safety of Beaurepair into the New Model Army, Jacob travels, and with a new companion, one Christopher Ferris. Ferris plays Good Angel to Jacob’s Bad Angel as they flee the horrors of war for London’s pre-Fire glory, and eventually to a Diggers commune. Jacob strives constantly, but is destined to be bettered by his own nature–and its lusts–for good or ill. Foremost in my mind is the truly excellent research that went into recreating 17th century England. Some might complain about the minutiae of daily life presented, but it creates a whole fabric, free of gaping rents. McCann sticks with a largely modern pattern of speech in her dialog, only occasionally using archaisms to highlight particular moments, such as the marriage ceremony, but the transitions are seamless. McCann effectively builds her story, relying on dribs and drabs to flesh out Jacob’s character, so that we are well into the novel before realizing his horrific nature–however, though he is a wholly unreliable narrator, that aspect creates a fascinating relationship as the reader gradually begins to understand him, just as Jacob and Ferris begin to understand one another. A largely absorbing read with few slow parts, that takes the reader wholesale into another fascinating world. Particularly fascinating is the vividly portrayed siege and battle of Basing House. Though imperfect, As Meat Loves Salt is worth the investment of time to read, and McCann worth watching for her next novel.
Spoilers lie within. Jacob is no schizophrenic, he is not haunted, nor is possessed–at least not by anything more than himself. The Voice that speaks to him is simply a manifestation of his own suspicions and desires. It is cloaked in religious belief because Jacob is a deeply religious man–something to be considered in a period novel. The relationship between the divine and the mundane is often underestimated these days, and manifestations of faith–such as Joan of Arc’s visions or Jacob’s own revelation of the Elect–are considered suspect, products of a diseased mind. While Jacob is a moody, dark, and sullen creature, he is not crazy. Not crazy that way, at least, He certainly has psychopathic tendencies, but that has nothing to do with his religious fervour. He rationalizes his desires, and acts accordingly, such as when he watches the colony’s destruction.
I see Ferris as no less evil in his way than Jacob. He is far more subtle, but Ferris uses people, then casts them aside when he is done–though he does not hesitate to continue making use of them when he is no longer their lover, as he does with Jacob. At all times he holds his perfection above Jacob’s head, but he manipulates Jacob–and others–constantly. He berates Jacob his brute strength, then calls upon it. He maliciously taunts Becs for her misplaced affections, and denies Jacob a place anywhere else in the world than with him. Throughout the novel he places his vision above the desires or needs of anyone else, as he is an essentially selfish man. Ferris and Jacob are simply dark and light mirrors for one another, both bent on self-destruction at the expense of others.
Cover: Dark and succulent, like Jacob himself. Makes use of a period painting and antique-looking gilded lettering. Very nice.
I finished binding the priest. Speechless and wracked with dry heaves, he was left for the time being to contemplate the corpse. The woman’s destroyer, havingtied her dress round his neck by the sleeves so it hung from his back like a cloak, went out ‘to hunt up more wolves,’ the others following. I leant against the wall, fingering my wounded thigh and sweating, until I could stand straight. When I left the old man’s gaze followed me to the door.
06 May – 11 May