Natalie Young and I are in a Borough Market café chatting about her book Season to Taste.
It's not long before our talk turns – to the obvious alarm and discomfort of a couple of elderly ladies perched nearby – to the various ways of preparing and eating your murdered husband’s body. Will olive oil and salt help make the skin crispy? What is the ideal sauce to go with slow-roasted thighs? How to best tenderise the grizzled bits around the feet?
“You know,” Young announces at one point, a wicked smile playing across her face. “One of my friends told me he actually salivated whilst reading a couple of chapters. He thought the idea of crispy brains, noodles, soy sauce and red cabbage was really rather yummy.”
If you are reading this, Borough Market-going folk, fear not. Young has not written a cannibal cookery title, but a novel. Season to Taste centres around Lizzie Prain, a seemingly unremarkable, somewhat meek 50-something hauswife from rural Surrey who one Monday morning decides on impulse to go outside and kill Jacob, her husband of 30 years, with a spade as he tends to the garden. Lizzie, a practical person, then decides to cut up Jacob’s body into 16 parts, freeze the various sections in intricately labelled packages and, over the course of a couple of weeks, eat them. It is, thinks Lizzie, the most economical and kindest thing to do.
Season to Taste
Season to Taste is written in a laconic, pared-down style that immediately brings to mind Camus’L’Étranger. If that seems a somewhat grand comparison, it is not, for Young’s book is one of those rare beasts – a literary novel of ideas written in simple language that could be both a university set text and a supermarket bestseller.
It is written in the third person, but mostly from Lizzie’s perspective, and interspersed with recipes (certainly not for the faint-hearted) and lists of self-help advice Lizzie formulates to help her – and other women contemplating eating their murdered husbands – get through the ordeal.
“I was trying to get to the enormity of the subject,” Young explains about her use of language. “It is about Lizzie trying to deal with what she has done, what she is doing and the madness of that. The best way to do that was to pare down the writing, to make it detached, not being literary or tricksy. There were times in going through the proofs when I thought: ‘Well, I could have been a bit more ambitious with that sentence.’ But, no, I needed to keep it direct.”
A comic satire
Part of the reason why Season to Taste succeeds is its ambiguity. Is it a comic satire (it is wickedly, darkly funny), a feminist call to arms, a modern-day replay of Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic? Young, for one, isn’t sure. “I didn’t think of any ‘issues’ when I was writing it. I just started with the character of Lizzie, this woman who was living alone in the woods. I knew something bad had happened, and I just went from there. If feminists want to take this on, if men want to think this is a man-hating novel, that’s fine. I’d love to be part of those discussions.”
Lizzie grounds the novel. Despite what she has done, you oddly end up rooting for her to succeed – to get away with murder, perhaps yield to the attentions of the wispy young chap from the garden centre, and to make a break to start over a new life. Partly, this is a result of seeing her and Jacob’s life together in flashback, and the realisation that the killing was not just an impulse on her part – that she has been the subject of passive-aggressive abuse for the past 30 years.
The most unsettling part of Season to Taste is the implication that we are all capable of this kind of violence. Young says: “Every single person has this aggression inside us. We’re very frightened of it, and repress it. Obviously, I’m not talking about people going out and committing acts of violence, but I think it would be healthier if we discuss more these dark forces that are in us and explore them in art. We are not that far from animals and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.”
Young grew up in the Surrey hills, not far from where she set Season to Taste. She was sent to various boarding schools, which she hated (her first piece of creative writing was a play she wrote aged 11 about the horrors of her school). After studying English at the University of Bristol she lived for a few years in Paris, Florence and Rome “writing and being a terrible waitress”. She married, had two children and lived in southern France for a while before returning to Britain, working at the Times as the book buyer for serialisation, and at Prospect Magazine as arts and books editor.
We All Ran into the Sunlight
In 2011, she had her first novel published, We All Ran into the Sunlight and began working on Season to Taste. She wrote it between school runs. “It was strange,” she says. “I would drop the kids off and I then had to go home and write this dreadful thing about this woman who was cooking her husband. It was a difficult thing to write; tunnelling into the unconscious is extremely uncomfortable sometimes. But what else are you going to do if you have this compulsion?”
She was, she admits somewhat sheepishly, going through a divorce when she started it. “My ex-husband and I have a very good relationship. He has a really good sense of humour and finds the book very funny. He has read it closely to find bits of himself in Jacob, but [he] hasn’t. I think it’s hidden very well.”
That brings the conversation back to Jacob; I say that surely part of Lizzie’s difficulty in consuming her husband was that he was somewhat past his sell-by date. “Yes, he unfortunately had to be a weathered, leathered and cranky old brute,” Young acknowledges.
“I did actually think about having Lizzie with some 20-year-old hunk with a six-pack and gleaming biceps—she could make Toy Boy Tartare, for example. But then it got a bit farcical. Still, the idea of tucking into a really yummy young bicep is somewhat appealing.”
Season to Taste is out now, published by Tinder Press.