Book Review

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

tender is the flesh

It all happened so quickly.  First, animals became infected with the virus and their meat became poisonous.  Then, governments initiated the Transition.  Now, ‘special meat’ – human meat – is legal.

Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans only no one calls them that.  He works with numbers, consignments, processing.  One day, he’s given a gift to seal a deal: a specimen of the finest quality.  He leaves her in his barn, tied up, a problem to be disposed of later.

But the specimen haunts Marcos.  Her trembling body, her eyes that watch him, that seem to understand.  And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost – and what might still be saved…

What a fantastically dark little novel this is!  A virus has infected all animals rendering them dangerous to humans, so much so that we can no longer eat them, keep them as pets, or interact with them in anyway.  Rather than taking the opportunity to become vegetarian, people begin to consume human meat.  It begins slowly, with the first reported incidents causing understandable outrage, but the practice is soon legalised with steps in place to ensure that this meat only comes from an approved source, preventing a person from turning on their neighbour in the worst possible way.  Of course, no one refers to it as “human” – it’s all “special meat”, and highlights the way that people are happy to sugar-coat the truth to make an idea seem more palatable – literally, in this case.

Our protagonist, Marcos, works in a meat-processing plant, as the slaughterhouses are now euphemistically referred to.  Through him, we see the whole end to end process, as special meat is reared, slaughtered, and distributed.  It is, frankly, horrifying, and yet not at all dissimilar to the way in which animals are currently treated.  Other industries have also had to replace their usual animal sources in this way, including the manufacturing of leather and laboratory testing.  These processes seem barbaric when you put humans in the place of other animals, and I think that this raises awareness of what some animals are subjected to.  It’s shocking and horrifying, and while I don’t know if this is the point – or one of the points – that the author is trying to raise, it’s a thought that has stayed with me since I finished reading the novel.

While Tender is the Flesh is an interesting thought experiment as to what might happen if animals could no longer be eaten – it would make for a great book club discussion – there is also a fantastic plot to the novel.  It starts when Marcos is given a female – a prize specimen – as a gift by a prospective business partner.  At first, he has no idea what to do with this gift, and while the obvious occurs, the plot developed in a way that I wasn’t expecting.  The ending took me by surprise, and while it doesn’t seem right to say that I enjoyed it, I thought it was clever and a perfect extension of Bazterrica’s ideas.

The distribution of information is also explored, as conspiracy theories spread that there is no animal virus, and that this is simply a new, sinister way of controlling population growth.  On the flip side is the way that some people will believe absolutely anything that they are told, and this is portrayed brilliantly and with a slightly comic touch through Marcos’ sister.  I think that there is a point of questioning what we’re told and making an informed judgement, rather than blindly following information as it’s distributed, particularly in this era of fake news.  I couldn’t help but think about certain comments made by a certain world leader about the possibility of using bleach and similar substances against coronavirus in this respect, particularly when it was reported shortly afterwards that some individuals had done exactly that.

Part horror, part dystopia, Tender is the Flesh is a fantastic exploration of a particularly sinister “what if” scenario.  Bazterrica has thought out each aspect of the novel and lures the reader in gently before fully revealing the truly horrific nature of this world.  It’s as bleak as they come, and I loved every page.  Recommended, if you have the stomach for it.

Tender is the Flesh was published by Pushkin Press in April.

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