on May 19, 2004
When I first finished this novel, I felt a terrible need to get it out of my sight. I couldn't return it to the library since it was about two in the morning, so I hid it under a pile of clothes in my closet. Such was the impact this story had on me - I could barely stand to keep it in my house.
Sound terrible? Well, it was, but in the best kind of way. I suffered through everything with Jacob Cullen, Maria McCann's fascinating narrator. Jacob is somewhat schizophrenic and completely obsessed with violence, but like most people he has his own (flawed) reasons for what he does. He doesn't hate himself, so in seeing everything from his perspective it becomes difficult to hate him for his actions. One also becomes aware of every possibility he has to improve himself and his life. Christopher Ferris, Jacob's lover, is the kind of person any man or woman could (and does) fall for, passionately. This makes it all the more horrifying to be trapped in Jacob's mind as he watches everything good in his life come to ruin. The ending, as gut-wrenching as it is, seems inevitable given that it's brought on by Jacob and Ferris both being true to who they are, for better or worse. There's no escape.
It's also worth noting that much could have gone wrong in the craft of this book, but didn't - quite the opposite. Not only is there the difficulty of narrating from Jacob's point of view (the mystery that is Jacob is dribbled out in the smallest hints, dreams or passing thoughts, never given too quickly), but also the story stretches from a manor house to London to the common fields, and it's all covered in compelling detail. The language, too, never falters in successfully blending 17th-century and modern. The underlying motif of hellfire/desire could come across as overused, but in the circumstances it's the right metaphor.
When I first finished this novel, it was a year ago. I never thought I could go through reading it again. But a few days ago I picked it up and found myself just as compelled as the first time. This book has it all - full characters, mystery, eroticism, tragedy, detailed history and a sweeping insight into human existence. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
on May 19, 2005
I finished this book about 4 hours ago and I feel like I have been on an emotional roller coaster. I actually feel disoriented and dizzy by this wonderful tragic book. I would have to say that this is one of the most intense reading experiences I have ever had. It opened me up and challenged me emotionally like few books or films have ever accomplished. I may read it again some day but not soon. I say this because this book is so realistic and tragic that it is painful.
Maria McCann gives us fair warning when she begins her story with a brutal murder, yet romantic idealist that I am, I kept hope alive in my heart that Jacob Cullen would overcome his dark interior voices and that he and Christopher Ferris would mature into a mutually supportive male-male couple. I hoped this to the final bleak and heartbreaking pages.
We see the world narrated through the eyes of Jacob Cullen, who maintains control of his irrational violent impulses 99% of the time, however, when he is threatened or hurt, he becomes a terror, a Dark Angel. McCann carefully allows us to see deeper and deeper into the disturbed mind of Jacob. He rationlizes much of his hostility and violence and I didn't fully understand until I was 75% of the way through the book as to how dangerous Jacob really is. He suffers so much for his actions that I empathized with him until the final 2 chapters when he facilitated the destruction of Christopher Ferris' world. When a love affair ends, there are those who will go to extremes to re-ignite the flames of passion, and if this does not work, they will seek the total destruction of their past lover. Jacob Cullen is one of these folks.
I hoped that Jacob's paranoid schizophrenic violent nature would be "cured" by his love for Christopher Ferris, his lover. They try to balance their strengths and weaknesses, each needing to submit to the other from time to time to maintain the balance needed in a male to male relationship. However, on many occassions neither partner submits and a struggle for dominance in the relationship clouds their interactions. Christopher Ferris is no push-over. In fact he is psychological healthy and empowered. The middle section of the book where Christopher and Jacob make love every night and plan their great commune adventure almost made me forget Jacob's intense violent reactions when he misinterprets and feels threatened.
I am very conflicted as to whether their sexual relationship postpones Jacob's fall into violent insanity or whether it aggravated it. Their struggles for dominance (Jacob gained a violent sexual dominance while Christopher gained the dominance of vision, direction and becoming Jacob's entire reason for existence)further aggravated Jacob's disturbed paranoid mind. You will understand the attraction between these men as you read the book. Christopher wishes to create a new socially just world yet he is attracted to the massive masculine force of Jacob. Jacob is aware of his faults and sees in Christopher the antithesis of his personality, a man of social grace, insight, and creativity. Christopher Ferris is not an angel however. He is manipulative and charming. He knows how to get his way which is one of the sore spots in Christopher and Jacob's relationship. During the bloody civil war, Christopher has become sick of all the gore and violence. He convinces Jacob to desert the army of Cromwell with him. Why does he chose Jacob over Nathan? Nathan is bright, articulate and would be a willing partner. He selects Jacob out of pure animal attraction, never a wise way to select a mate. Christopher is physically and emotionally hurt so often that he can no longer forgive Jacob's violent nature and actions. He continues to love but can no longer forgive. His disillusionment with Jacob mirrors the reader's growing disillusionment but as in all failing relationships there are sexual bonds that pull folks back into destructive patterns.
I hoped that Christopher Ferris, a truly good man with exceptional visionary leadership and interpersonal skills, would achieve his mission of building the New Jerusalem commune, a social justice experiment in a violent time of little justice. I believed this would happen even as Jacob becomes more of a disruptive and dark force in the life of the commune.
I hoped that the relationship between Christopher Ferris and Jacob Cullen would grow since it was absolutely full of creative energy and sexual electricity. I think both men loved each other but Christopher was obsessed with his vision of social justice whereas Jacob was obsessed with Christopher. This might have worked if Jacob had not been a violent paranoid schizophrenic with frightful devilish voices sounding in his scull.
The Civil War in England was a time of great social upheaval and McCann captures all the filth, inhumanity, smells, and diseases. The loss of social order would certainly be fertile ground for violence and inhumanity but also a fertile ground for a male-male relationship as well as utopian social movements.
The battle scenes, between the Catholic Cavallier forces of Charles I and the Parlimentary Protestant forces of Cromwell are terrible in their violence and cruelty and serve as a perfect background for Jacob's growing obsession with his fellow soldier, Christopher Ferris. Ferris fights the good fight while hating the blood and gore of warfare. In this gore and constant danger, Christopher Ferris finds the wild man, Jacob, and nutures him while their growing obsession with each other grows.
McCann's charaterization was superb. Every character, of which there are many, in this historic and personal tragedy comes to life. Her attention to detail and social interactions make even minor characters jump alive in your imagination.
I highly recommend this book but I warn you that it is an upsetting reading experience that will leave you with amazement at McCann's literary power.
on May 22, 2003
Wow! I just finished reading this book and am still reeling from it. I do not remember the last time I read a novel that made me feel so much so deeply. Moments from the story keep replaying in my mind, as if I had lived them . . .
It is sad to read reviewers casually dismissing this book's narrator as unlikable. Jacob Cullen is twisted, but I find him darkly alluring. During the novel, he alternately reveals his intelligence, his resourcefulness, his idealism, his selfishness, his willingness to please, his paranoia, his shame, his sexual magnetism, and his capacity for cruelty. Still, he does not easily reduce to any of these. If he has one distinguishing characteristic, it is his brooding, passionate nature. Someone flippantly asked why anyone would want to read a novel about such an unpleasant man. The answer is that this sullen protagonist leads a richly textured emotional life, which McCann communicates with alarming power and precision. This book challenges the reader to feel the sprawling beauty and ugliness of Jacob and his world. As such, McCann's talent is a welcome tonic to our current era's numb complacency and tidy compartmentalization of affect.
This novel unsettles because life is unsettling. Love, desire, vulnerability and obsession fold in and out of each other, with violence limning the contours. McCann's novel somehow manages to capture this great big mess in all of its sadness and glory. Reading this novel made me feel my own life anew. I can think of no better praise.
In mid-Sixteenth Century England, the countryside is decimated by civil war, giving birth to the aptly named New Army. Marching behind the banner of Oliver Cromwell, the ragtag army of peasants and servants is hot in pursuit of Papists and idolaters, not to mention rations for the starving soldiers. Wherever the army's wrath rages, the land, people and booty are fair game. The marauding New Army, although mostly successful in their sieges, has been hindered by a lack of adequate supplies, as well as grievous injuries, kept in line by the promise of booty and women for their pleasure.
On an isolated farm in the middle of the country, as yet untouched by the violence, Jacob Cullen lives with his two brothers, fallen on hard times since the death of their father. As a gambler, the father had lost most of the family fortune and left his three sons at the mercy of the debtors. Although raised as gentry, they have been forced to work as servants in the house of a local man to whom their father owed a great deal. Even in such reduced circumstances, the brothers are happy to have each other's company and, like many other peasants, they have been infected by the incipient rebellion across the land, reading forbidden broadsheets late at night, excited by the pending anarchy.
As Jacob prepares for his wedding to another servant, he is full of the youthful dreams common to young men. By chance, Jacob sees a band of officials riding to the farm unexpectedly, possibly bearing a warrant for Jacob and his brothers. Jacob is convinced that he is suspected of crimes against the Crown as well as a recent murder. After stealing a horse and some jewelry, Jacob takes flight, along with his new bride and one brother. Unfortunately, Joseph's brother is wounded during the escape and they must take refuge in the forest. While there, Jacob indulges his lifelong lack of self-control, indulging his temper and intemperate appetite, ruining his future prospects. Finding himself alone the next morning, he stumbles ahead, alone and confused, toward safety.
Jacob is found on the side of the road by a contingent of soldiers from the New Army, where he lies insensate, near starvation. He is saved by the good graces of Christopher Ferris, a Londoner, who takes Jacob under his wing until he recovers. Jacob is then trained as a member of the New Army and looks to Ferris for companionship and friendship, although he is unable to tolerate any of Ferris' other friends and finds himself sickened with jealousy.. Later, disgusted by the rigors of war and too much bloodshed, Jacob and Ferris sneak off in the dark of night, having seen all they ever hope to see of such sights. They return to London, where Ferris has rooms with an aging aunt who dotes on her only nephew. She takes them both in, grateful that Jacob has returned her beloved nephew to safety.
Jacob reveals much of a personal nature to the reader as the novel progresses, a man with so little self-knowledge that he is constantly shocked by the consequences of his own actions. A blighted soul whose judgment is obliterated by passion, Jacob is driven by his lustful desires, aptly named by Ferris "The Bad Angel. Jacob is forced by circumstance to embark upon his most difficult journey, confronting his own nature and questioning his deepest motives, stepping blindly into uncharted territory. Jacob's spirit is so deeply flawed that he greedily sows the seeds of his own destruction, completely oblivious in his truncated spiritual development.
Jacob is "The Bad Angel", but Ferris personifies the "Good Angel", moderate and thoughtful, respectful of the feelings of others. Ferris has long dreamed of living off the land in a community of others, imagining of a kind of Everyman's utopia. Hoping to teach Jacob the finer points of self-control and temperance, although Jacob is single-mindedly incapable of subtlety, Ferris commits himself to Jacob's education in the finer aspects of a refined life. Yet Ferris is himself seduced by Jacob's dark desire, until they are finally engaged in a constant struggle for dominance. Part love story, part exploration of the darkness at the heart of a man's soul, this novel tackles a most difficult aspect of human nature, exposing the many sides of love/obsession. For both Jacob and Ferris, locked in a battle between Heaven and Hell, consumed by their endless erotic adventures, their very humanity is stripped to its bare bones. In elegant prose, the author dares the reader to flinch. Luan Gaines/2003.
on January 2, 2003
This is a brilliant novel, a true masterpiece. Maria McCann has taken the historical novel to a new height with the story of Jacob Cullen, a deeply flawed man, and his love for Feriss, the idealist. Set against the background of the English Civil War, we are plunged into the 17th Century from the first pages. We see war,... idealism and great chunks of daily life. But above all it is the story of Jacob who cannot control his inner demons of rage and jealousy. And it is a love story with all the stages of an obsessive love, infatuation, fulfulllment, obsession and betrayal. I was not able to put the book down and it has haunted me ever since.
This is a remarkable achievement for a first time novelist. Maria McCann is an extraordinary writer. You simply must read this book.
on September 18, 2005
This is a novel bound to stir up strong opinions in its readers. I found this to be the most shocking historical novel I have read, due not to the pages and pages of violence that bring the bloody English Civil War to life, but because of the singular nature of its protagonist. If you are a reader who judges a novel by the likability factor of its characters, I suggest you pass this one by. But I think that the strong of stomach will be helpless to put this one down.
When a dark secret to the psyche of Jacob Cullen is revealed early in the story, the effect is like a punch to the gut of the reader, and though I am seldom truly repelled by unsympathetic characters, this one was a doozy!
As the creepy tale of Cullen's obsession for his benefactor Christopher Ferris begins to play out, the brave reader will be unable to turn away from this involving psychological thriller, and though there are times when the story shows signs of sagging, author McCann's uncompromising vision of her 17th Century world and the passions of her characters is stunning, detailed and disturbing.
The sexual passion of one man for another, explicit not in description of sexual acts but in the burning emotions and desires present, shows a fascinating understanding on the author's part, and like the frightening developments in the plot, will not be to the tastes of some readers.
So I offer my praise and warnings to those who would enter the world of "As Meat Loves Salt". Brutal and beautiful,full of marvelous period detail, it is sad and unforgettable.
on March 22, 2005
I've read this book a few times now, and even though I (obviously) know what happens, I still find myself in tears at the end. I almost don't want to evaluate it as it has, no doubt, many imperfections but it somehow transcends these to be a powerful emotional experience. Indeed, it's one of very, very few novels I have read in recent years which can claim this (Siri Hustvedt's "What I Loved" being another).
Its power is in its ability to make my heart ache for self-destructive Jacob even while recognising the inexcusable nature of his violence and its appalling impact on others. On one level, it's deeply problematic to feel such pity for a character whose acts are violent and damaging, particularly in his use of sexual violence. On another, the way the narrative uncovers insights through the accrual of everyday knowledge makes simplistic judgements impossible, just as in reality. Nothing stands alone. The novel forces the reader to confront beliefs and stereotypes about "monsters" and "madmen" and instead recognise how such personalities become disconnected by life experiences.
I think it also shows us how close to some of these states any of us might come, too. I've been in relationships where jealousy took me nearer the edge of my reason than I wanted to be. I can understand how it happens (although I've never raped or murdered anyone!).
One thing I particularly like about the book is how well it illustrates the fallacy of love (and sex) as redemption. I don't believe that "love conquers all" - at best it gives us some help with the lifelong quest to know, understand and improve ourselves given the raw material which was formed before our lovers ever knew our names.
Jacob's relationship with Ferris at best postpones and at worst aggravates his decline into uncontrollable violence - it has no transformative power and this makes the happiness they briefly believe they share all the more poignant. While Jacob is morally responsible for the rapes and violence, and in effect he has been formed and flawed before he ever meets Ferris, I also feel that his gradual disconnection from reality is fuelled by the way his lover eroticises as well as resisting Jacob's inherent sense of dominance. Ferris also counters his fears of the spiritual threat of damnation with a rationality which, you feel, just doesn't reach the emotions-driven Jacob. Both seem destined to draw the worst from each other and so it proves.
Unlike many I'm not sure I want to see a sequel. Although Jacob is young, and is travelling to new experiences, there doesn't seem much further he can go on his internal journey. I don't know what there would be left to say. A happy ending is no more likely in Massachusetts than Cheapside. Bleak as it is, I prefer to think of him on the boat, the only love letter he ever got (or ever will) floating on the waves below, so disconnected from self that he cannot even tell he is crying.
on January 23, 2004
As Meat Loves Salt is in no way an original story; the tale of betrayal, madness, sin, and, of course, love is one that has probably been told in a thousand other love stories, only in subtler tones. However, McCann has the surprising ability to draw the reader into the story, into Jacob. I felt his emotions with a acuteness I haven't ever felt from a book; when Jacob was happy, confused, enraged, I was with him. If you take a moment to step out of the book and look at him from a objective viewpoint, you see how mad he is, how self-destructive. But, while reading, you are so drawn up that you hardly notice; you just want him to be happy.
The outside of Jacob's psyche is just as vivid, and gritty with the realism of the period. Everything, the mud on the road, the smells of the city, the chill of sleeping on the ground, came together to create one of the most complete backdrops I've ever had the pleasure to read of.
My heart ached for Jacob throughout. When I finally finished, I put the book down and stared at it, as the last sentences repeated in my head. I couldn't sleep; I just lay awake and thought about it. It's haunted me since.
Read this book. There's not a single reason not to.
on April 20, 2003
In her first novel, set during the English Civil War, McCann takes a huge risk (and largely succeeds) in making the narrator deeply loathsome. Haunted by inner demons to the point of schizophrenia, Jacob Cullen is unable to control his rage, his murderous desires, and especially his jealousy, and he suddenly finds himself fleeing the comforts of his wife, his family, and the manor where he was a servant. He desperately attempts to corral his brutish manners but often fails when it matters most. Readers will probably alternate between horror at his actions and empathy (even sympathy) for his plight. More often than not, I found myself dreading to turn the page--but unable to stop reading.
To summarize the story is to give too much away. The plot twists began surprising me within eighty pages, and I wouldn't want to ruin the experience for others. Suffice it to say that events lead Jacob to join Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army and participate in one of its most gruesome sieges. McCann's stomach-churning descriptions of the battle scenes are equally compelling and unbearable--and the assault continues when Jacob and his newly found friend, Christopher Ferris, flee to the stench-ridden metropolis of London and, later, when they establish a homestead of squatters. Ferris, like the reader, is torn throughout these exploits by his own emotions toward the volatile Cullen: alarmed by Jacob's violence but disarmed by his underlying potential and attracted to his occasional tenderness.
One of the more astonishing aspects of the novel is the writing itself. Even established authors would have difficulty maintaining such a consistent tone for nearly 600 pages. McCann's wording recalls, but never slavishly imitates, the cadence of seventeenth-century prose, yet at no time is the narrative difficult to follow or read. The plot, the action, the characters, the writing--all the elements add up to a tour de force of historical fiction.
After reading it back in 2005, As Meat Loves Salt instantly became one of my favourite novels. All these years after its publication it still manages to be one of the most frequently recommended books on the internet's gay fiction communities, so I thought it was high time I posted my thoughts.
On its surface, McCann's novel is merely a love story, or perhaps a story of sexual obsession. And it will certainly reward anyone who chooses to read it on that level alone. It is, after all, an emotionally involving and erotically charged experience. But for the thoughtful reader, this book has so much more to offer.
After all, it is certainly by no accident that she set the tale during the English Civil War. Her two main characters are polar opposites and, while they desire one another, their relationship is extremely volatile. Jacob Cullen, the delusional, superstitious anti-hero and his lover, Christopher Ferris, a clear-eyed atheist who is thirsty for reform, represent the two sides of England at that particular moment in history. Jacob, an unforgiving and jealous man who is guided by voices in his head, represents the rigors of religion, traditionalism and stasis, while mild-mannered Ferris is the practical, forward-thinking man of action. The story of their love, and its eventual disintegration, is the story of England at the crossroads of modernity and tradition.
If one is looking for a historical "romance" novel, I would advise against this one. This is a work of literature. And while the early scenes between Jacob and Ferris are passionate and the few sex scenes between them are undeniably erotic (without being pornographic, mercifully), McCann hasn't written a manifesto for gay rights, nor is she interested in saving the souls of her characters. Instead she offers us an intelligent, engaging allegory that will continue to haunt my memory long after I've forgotten all those half-baked happily ever afters.
Recommended for serious readers of gay literature.