Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (Review)

She has the human look of a domesticated animal.

The twitter hype on this one was ridiculous, with everyone talking about how it put them off their food and saying things like ‘gross’ and ‘unputdownable’. Obviously, as a connoisseur of gross and unputdownable things, I had to have it. And everyone was absolutely right.

Rating: 4.5 stars!

The plot:

Working at the local processing plant, Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans—though no one calls them that anymore. His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that animals had been infected with a virus and their meat had become poisonous. Then governments initiated the Transition. Now, human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.

Then one day he’s given a gift: a specimen of the finest quality. He leaves her in his barn, tied up, a problem to be disposed of later. But she haunts Marcos. Her trembling body, her watchful, knowing eyes. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.

What did I think?

This book is truly haunting. The way it’s written is a perfect match for the tone, and I’m really impressed with the translation. I didn’t find it quite as gory as everyone else seemed to, but there’s a good chance that that’s because I read a lot of gory and gross books so my tolerance for it is pretty high. The way it was handled is, however, absolutely chilling. There’s something about the detachment that Marcos shows about the entire system that makes it feel even colder and crueller than I’d anticipated. The book focuses on characters who remember Before, but almost none of them question the new way of life. Some of the characters are gleeful about it, they enjoy the process of raising and slaughtering heads.

This is a book designed to make you think. It’d be easy to take it all at face value and think nothing of it, the real enjoyment of this book comes in the moments between reading when it knots in your thoughts and makes you imagine a world where the world is upside down. The longer you think about it, the more the book speaks to you too. More than a story about cannibalism, Tender is the Flesh is a story about loss and love and family, and how your whole world can shift with a tiny event while everyone else continues on as normal.

The ending, without spoiling anything, is powerful and doesn’t let you forget a word that the book has told you. Uncomfortable truths are a fact of life in Tender is the Flesh, and it won’t let the reader be anything but complicit in the points it is making. We’ve sat with our protagonist the entire novella, rooting for him and villainising him in different moments, and Agustina Bazterrica uses him as a tool to strip back human nature to its barest sense. This is easy to read and hard to read all at once, and definitely not for the faint of heart. If you can brave it, it’s a very worthy read.

Links:

Add it on Goodreads here!

Buy at Hive if you can and support your local indie booksellers! Also available at Waterstones and Amazon.

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