Book Review: Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessey
I love a good Young Adult novel, you know. It’s come on a lot from my mid 90s school library cache where boyfriends were occasionally killed by fridges (not messing) and there was some bizarre series set in some kind of hospice which pre did the Fault In Our Stars twist BUT WITH AIDS. Must track those down, nobody ever believes me. But yes. Anyway.
These days what I tend to enjoy about them is where they dig into an Issue. You don’t seem to get this with books aimed at adults, presumably because we’re all supposed to have our lives under control and know where we stand with everything and OH GOD WHO LEFT ME IN CHARGE I’M SCARED GUYS. Unless I’m just reading the wrong books. It should be evident that much is above my level.
I get very peeved about Book Snobbery as a thing in general, and in particular the idea that something aimed at a young audience has nothing to teach adults. I mean, we learned nothing from Twilight other than “sparkly vampires don’t like period blood EURGH GROSS” but you might be menstruating near some sparkly vampires one of these days and that’ll get you out of a tight spot.
Anyway, I had an eye out for this book already and managed to nab a proof copy, like I get so many things, by being snarky on Twitter. I had some concerns though, with a YA novel about eating disorders. There are a fair number, which is fair enough, given it’s a potentially fatal culture bound illness that effects mainly women in their late teens. Not a problem. The problem is: some of them are such bloody good advertising.
Now I’m a grown woman (according to my council tax bill) and I’ve gone up against the leery advances of my own eating disorder and other people’s similar but always very different versions more times than I care to recall. I have a thing where I collect books with any sort of mental health theme so I can recommend them and use them as discussion points with people I see at work. It’s a good way of making a connection. Trouble with the eating disorder ones is that with the best of intentions, they end up serving as instruction manuals. It’s not the author’s intention, certainly; I’d wager most of them don’t know that much about the wily nature of the beast and how the anorexic mind in particular stores up absolutely any information it can use against its host at a later date. So you get these lovely, lyrical, heartfelt, brutal beautiful stories littered with calorie counts (*grits teeth*), low-lower-lowest weights, (*sucks air through teeth*) starvation diet plans (*squeaks a little bit*) and handy techniques for fucking with a weigh in (OH COME ON LADS). But then, I thought, is there a way of showing an eating disorder for what it is without feeding it sly information?
So it turns out there is. And it’s here. In this book. Where the anorexic narrator has no body.
YESSSSSSSSS GENIUS WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THIS?
So our intrepid narrator Annabel, having recently shuffled off this mortal coil due to her illness (no nasty death bed details here either) has been tasked with the emotional welfare of her stressed out, love sick and somewhat adrift classmate-in exchange for which she will be permitted to send a message to her family from an afterlife the nature of which is never quite clear (though our heroine gets in a few sly digs about Christmas films and celestial social workers-there’s no one quite so equipped to guide you through an emotional maelstrom than a therapeutically resistant teenage girl on a favour) And faced with her subject Julia’s career uncertainty, romantic inadequacy and general sense that all is not as it should be, Annabel thinks: what this girl really needs is to lose weight!
Because she might have escaped her physical form, and therefore no longer needs her scales or MyFitnessPal, but she sure as hell hasn’t escaped the sure and certain knowledge that all women have drilled into their bones that when they feel bad, they feel fat. And thus, she embarks on fixing Julia’s malaise by providing the hissing, spitting inner monologue that all of us with “food issues” will know all too well. And to begin with, it works. Because that’s what it does. Doesn’t it?
So follows Julia’s travails on the school newspaper, her awkward friendship with the girl who took Annabel’s school place, and her soul crushingly second best status with a Stupid Boy and the Stupid Cow ahead of her are medicated, at first, by her new project. Annabel, meanwhile, takes to spying on her deeply troubled younger sister, her very fragile hospital BFF and another ward mate who has taken to writing earnest recovery poetry taking Annabel’s name in vain. Even theminor snapshots of this cast of characters are so well drawn I could probably decipher their usernames and logins on any social networking site, past or present, and have a good guess at their profile pictures too.
More so as the wheels begin coming off for both girls, as the real causes of Julia’s unrest begin to unfold and leave Annabel flailing as she becomes painfully aware that she didn’t perfect herself after all: she merely opted out of the whole game. There’s a brutal passage in Trainspotting where one of the main characters explains the benefits of heroin addiction: without it there’s all sort of problems to address, with it all you need to think about is when you’re getting more heroin. And that, for me, is what this story does for anorexia: removes the body, removes the numbers, removes the high stakes (I mean, she’s dead before the book starts!) and exposes the aching bewilderment at the heart of the monster, with a gentle suggestion that this is maybe how it becomes an option for brave and bright and fierce and sharp and intelligent girls (and boys), even ones whose eyes are as permanently rolled to the heavens as I suspect Annabel’s would be. And as we wrap up with a page-crackingly tense showdown with the forces of douchebaggery which I won’t spoil here, it becomes increasingly apparent to both girls that if you want to get rid of your monsters, you don’t eat them, or starve them, you have to name them. Because on paper, they lose their majesty and really, they can’t hurt you at all.
Take it from an adult woman with an over fondness for natural yoghurt, an embarrassing past of Internet personas comprised entirely from Manic Street Preachers lyrics and a list of books she holds out like charms to anyone on her way who looks lost. On which, this book holds a prized space, with not a number in sight.