Book Review: Season to Taste
By Natalie Young
Little, Brown, 2014
At one point in Natalie Young’s new novel Season to Taste, fifty-something Surrey housewife Lizzie Prain reflects on a typical moment in her thirty-year marriage to her bluff and clueless husband:
Their home, as she’d pointed out one evening by knocking on a wall, wasn’t caving in, and she, his loving wife, was sitting very still at the table with her eyes open and looking straight at him while holding up an oatcake with a slice of Brie, which managed to convey, she felt, that she wasn’t going anywhere, things weren’t running to cheese as he saw them in his mind. They were going to be all right.
But if things aren’t “running to cheese” in their marriage, it’s through precious little effort on Jacob’s part; by the point at which the novel opens, he’s been playing passive aggressive mind-games on Lizzie for decades, and her outrage has smoothed over into a dull, constant thud of resentment. Then one morning she walks up behind Jacob as he putters in the garden and caves in the back of his head with a spade.
What Young provides for her readers from that point on is a steady-eyed and chillingly systematic urban legend that turns on one simple decision Lizzie makes. She looks at the body in the garden and imagines the inevitable consequences if she dragged it to the nearest forest and buried it, where it would be vulnerable to every random chance:
Then a dog or a walker would find him and that would be the end of it. In the future, a telephone would be ringing, a mobile lighting up on the kitchen table she’d chosen for herself online. She’d be called back from wherever she’d run to, brought back to the Surrey woos in a police car, forced to confront, sent down.
So she decides instead to strip his body, chop it into portable pieces, wrap and freeze the pieces, do a little research, and then cook and eat the bits. Young’s Lizzie is a consummate homebody, and like all consummate homebodies, she’s a dead-souled sociopath; she’s determined that she’s not going to jail for killing her husband, so she matter-of-factly embraces the task of consuming Jacob’s remains.
Young must have had quite a time explaining to friends and strangers the enormous amount of research she’s clearly done in order to make Lizzie’s epicurean adventures believable. We learn how to disjoint an adult body; we learn how to pare flesh, tendon, and muscle; we learn what oven settings are best for cooking calluses, viscera, and testicles. Young actually adds a garnish of plot here and there in these 250 pages, but she knows perfectly well her readers aren’t going to care about that – they aren’t going to be able to look away from the nightmarish central drama in which Lizzie Prain slowly eats her husband, rising to the kitchen challenges presented by each body-part in her freezer:
Out on the patio the barbecue was cleaned up and ready. Carrying the remainder of his lower right leg and knee under her arm, she went to the shed for the axe, then put the leg on the ground and made a clean break through the smooth-shaven shin. Now it was in two manageable pieces, each a bit longer than her own hand. Lizzie wrapped them securely in foil, and then lifted the pieces onto the barbecue. They nestled in among the coals. Black pepper, she thought. And lemon juice.
“She’d found there was a rhythm to this,” Young narrates. “She was settling in. It was nearly spring. She got some wood from the garage to make a bonfire on the lawn.” And the book finds a rhythm to it as well, but it’s mighty fragile; Young is a master of deadpan narration, and Season to Taste is addictive reading, but the animating conceit is as evanescent as most revelation-horror (recall how riveting you found the climactic meal in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal the first time you read it – and how vaguely silly you found it the second time). You can only shudder once at Lizzie’s first casserole – but you will shudder, and that’s no mean feat of storytelling and no slight recommendation.