Why do we love a happy never after?
As a new novel offers ways to cook and eat your husband, Jon Stock tucks into the 'chick noir' genre of marriage thriller and sees that there truly is an appetite for the toxic, darker side of life
There's no health warning on Season To Taste, a new novel by Natalie Young, but the subtitle sets the tone: How to Eat Your Husband. "Always let the meat rest under foil for at least 10 minutes before carving," Lizzie Prain, the book's protagonist, offers helpfully.
An interesting thought when the meat in question is her late husband's lower left leg joint, carefully preserved in the freezer along with 15 other body parts after she clubbed him to death with a spade in the garden.
The book, published last Thursday, is the latest example of a new genre that publishers are describing as 'chick noir' -- no pink jackets, no happily-ever-after endings, just chilling narratives charting the breakdown of domestic intimacy and trust.
This trend for toxic marriage thrillers began with Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, the phenomenally successful American thriller about a cheating husband and AWOL wife. The book dominated the bestseller charts in America and Ireland last year and is soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.
Last Thursday also saw the publication of Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse, a psychological suspense novel that's being billed as Britain's answer to Gone Girl. "A whirlwind romance," the book blurb begins. "A Perfect marriage. Hannah Reilly has seized her chance at happiness. Until the day her husband fails to come home ... "
"I'd define 'chick noir' as psychological thrillers that explore the fears and anxieties experienced by many women," Whitehouse says.
"They deal in the dark side of relationships, intimate danger, the idea that you can never really know your husband or partner or that your home and relationship is threatened. In these books, danger sleeps next to you. Marriage is catnip for writers of psychological suspense because it's such a private, intimate relationship."
"I think there's always been a tradition of psychological suspense emerging from the domestic sphere -- from the secrets concealed in marriages and relationships," says literary agent Will Francis of Janklow & Nesbit, who represents Natalie Young. "It's not a new thing: Patricia Highsmith, Daphne Du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte if you go back far enough.
"The market is always there, but because they are character rather than concept driven, they are hard to write and it takes an author as skillful as a Gillian Flynn to breathe new life into the genre. Season to Taste is really just an anatomy of a marriage."
A particularly disturbing viewpoint if you happen to be the author's ex-husband.
Young was divorcing him when she began writing Season To Taste, but she claims that their relationship is good and that he loves the book. "He thinks it's an absolute cracker," she says, adding that he has searched in vain for evidence of himself in Jacob, the (much older) fictitious husband. "I think it's hidden very well."
When contacted, Young's ex-husband, Peter Sandison, was certainly on message. "I am very proud of her," he says, apparently not through gritted teeth.
"For me it's a wickedly black comedy and a clever, gripping thriller. I'm telling everyone I know about it -- I've never read anything like it."
Young, who got a first in English Literature at Bristol University, says that she didn't consciously set out to write a chick noir novel, but is happy to be part of the new trend.
"Many women can't cope with chick lit, in which a woman's happiness depends on her finding a good man. So many women out there don't want their lives to be like that. We have also just been through a major recession. I think books are going to reflect the dark and despair of that. The last thing we need is the literary equivalent of a tea-cosy."
Season to Taste may be nausea-inducing in places and, er, tasteless, but it can't be accused of being twee. In between flashbacks of Lizzie's repressed marriage, the reader learns how to oven-cook hands (best served with new potatoes and mange tout), how to make a spaghetti dish with the heart, and that the tastiest accompaniment to slow-roasted thighs is smashed up rosemary, anchovy and garlic.
"Cannibalism has a rich literary heritage because it works on a symbolic level as a means of addressing numerous social anxieties," Young claims.
"In this case, with a woman eating her husband in the Home Counties, I have found a way of gently poking fun at middle classiness, capitalism, foodie culture, and power relations between men and women."
It remains to be seen if the public will swallow it.
Five chick noir essentials
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
The Silent Wife - ASA Harrison
Season to Taste - Natalie Young
Before We Met - Lucie Whitehouse
You Should Have Known - Jean Hanff Korelitz