NO PICNIC: Natalie Young says her ex husband loves her book, despite the fact it was inspired by their divorce and involves the protagonist eating her husband.
Just a few months ago, Natalie Young was an unemployed single mother of two, who scraped by doing odd jobs as a babysitter and English tutor. Today, she is a publishing star, whose new novel has been variously compared to Fifty Shades of Grey and the work of Albert Camus. Of course, two more different writers it's hardly possible to imagine – but the point is that her publishers hopes are pinned on the belief that in Season to Taste (subtitled, How to Eat Your Husband) she has produced that rarest of things, a literary blockbuster. Not only that but one with an irresistibly marketable twist – it's a pitch- black novel about a woman who kills her husband and then chops him up and cooks him. And it was inspired by Young's recent divorce from the father of her two young children.
It's this final fact that has been the headline of much of the pre-publication hype, which on the day we meet has begun to escalate wildly. "Reporters turned up at my ex-husband's mother's house," she says, eyes widening under her heavy fringe. "Either to find out if he was alive," she deadpans (or) ... . "They just didn't believe that he loved the book. They couldn't believe that a woman could write a book like this, inspired by her own divorce, and that the ex-husband, with whom she'd had the divorce could love it. They thought that was a lie."
Every now and then, a cultural phenomenon comes along and unearths something heretofore unacknowledged – a groundswell of emotion or desire hidden behind the decorous surface of our day-to-day lives. It's because of its potential in this regard that Season to Taste has been earmarked as the new Fifty Shades of Grey. Young looks set to do for marital disharmony what EL James did for secret female desire – blow it open.
Lizzie Prain is a 51-year-old woman who after 30 grinding years stuck in an emotionally barren marriage with a man who relentlessly undermines her, takes a shovel to her husband's head. Faced with the problem of disposing of his body she decides to dismember him into 16 parts, (each one carefully labelled and stored in her freezer) before cooking him up and eating him. It's murder, of course, but it's something else besides that – a last desperate bid for freedom, before she herself is spiritually devoured. Some part of Lizzie Prain recognises that in this marriage, it's eat or be eaten.
"I think actually looking into the heterosexual relationship," Young says, "looking right into the dynamic, and the way in which men and women use power and try to get power and destabilise each other ... I think that's a really interesting area."
Season to Taste is anti-chick-lit – a neat reversal of the boy meets girl narrative trope, which is turned instead into woman eats man. To the reader, this feels daring, groundbreaking and original.
Young grew up in Surrey – in the same leafy, semi-rural area in which the novel is set. Indeed, Lizzie's house is based on a real one that Natalie lived close to as a child. She went to boarding school, and, as an adult, worked for the Times before becoming Arts and Books editor for Prospect magazine. She's always written fiction though, and Season to Taste is her second novel. The first, We All Ran Into The Sunlight, was written when she lived in the south of France with her husband and deals with the breakdown of a marriage.
Perhaps it's not that surprising, given the grizzly content of the book, that Young is being cast as a literary black widow. In fact, I'd guess there is a tiny part of her that is amused by and enjoys it. Today, she is dressed head to toe in fashion black, shiny leggings and flat boots, accented with a slash of plum lipstick. Her eyes are intense behind that curtain fringe and she has tiny, expressive hands. She speaks as she writes – with a surgically precise command of language and unstinting emotional honesty.
The last few weeks, she admits, have been strange and disorientating. It is two days before publication when we meet and already things are kicking off. "I've got women in Canada sending me recipes called Roasted Rosemary leg of Rory and Love handle Stew Of Stuart," she says. Evidence that she has plugged into a great, buried magma chamber of marital resentment out there – and the secret fantasies of violence that bubble underneath the dinner party ready smiles of many modern couples. Her story lances the boil of all that unarticulated rage. "As human beings, we have this whole spectrum of things in us. I think, let's bring them up," she says. "I find that when I'm writing something, the longer I'm with it, the darker it gets. Because I think there's nothing to me more scary than being in a room with people who are all smiling and saying everything is fine. It really scares me – if we bury stuff it comes out sideways."
She's not one for burying things herself. "I do wonder how people survive in marriages for 30, 40, 50 years. I think a beautiful relationship is one of the most wonderful things you can have, but I genuinely do wonder how people manage. I can't. I find it very difficult. I'm not saying that we all go around carrying these murderous intents. But I think that when something like this comes along it makes things that are probably quite taboo in everyday life, accessible through art and through conversation."
For Natalie, writing the book was an act of desperation. It's stacked full of the black humour that comes from hitting rock bottom. "I had no plan B," she says. She was broke and stuck. And so, she returned in her mind to an idea for a character she had had several years before – a woman living alone in a house in the woods. "And I started to build on it. After three or so months of working on her story, it came to me. One morning literally, I woke up and I wrote down in a diary, I understand now that she's killed her husband and she's going to cook him and eat him."
Lizzie too is stuck. Before she killed him, she and her husband Jacob were festering together in a state of unfulfilled ambitions and abandoned hopes. "The pair of them have never really got anywhere, they've never really done anything. And there's a sense in which lethargy is sort of belching its fumes underneath the house," Natalie says.
The notion of needing to break through the stasis by whatever means necessary was something Natalie felt keenly at the time of writing. "An unemployed single mother is very, very stuck. There's little opportunity for you. And you have no money so you can't make any opportunity. Your choices get whittled down, quickly. It's a really frightening place to be. And I think that we need to understand how many people are stuck. Stuck in jobs that are awful," she says. "I was disturbed by being stuck. Very frightened of not getting a job and not being able to look after the children properly, and you feel like a total failure. And then you project that into the world and people don't want to know you ... so it's hard to reach out to your friends and say help, I'm really stuck."
She admits it took a certain frame of mind to produce this kind of story. "I don't know that this would have been written had I not been going through a divorce. And I don't know that this book would have been written had I not been experiencing what it was to be an unemployed single parent. I think the combination of the two things, both of which are extremely stressful situations, triggered a kind of perfect storm of urgency out of which I was able to draw this book. Urgency, unhappiness and a bleak sense of what life is about ... . And when you have so much stress, you get to a very bleak place ... I think bleakness and black humour come from a place of desperation."
Fighting her way out via a gory and often grotesque story about cannibalism was no picnic. The book would be hard work for the squeamish; here is Lizzie tucking into a hand. "She nibbled her husband's roasted fingers, as if from a rib, and she cracked the smaller bones of the thumb while frowning hard."
She adds: "To take the kids to school and to come back and sit in my flat, day in day out. I would wake up feeling like I was kind of facing this wall of male thigh, or an arm ... . I spent about six months working on it every day and then I stopped because I couldn't bear it any longer. It was too awful. I worked for six months on the killing, cutting, dismembering, cooking. And at the end of that six months I felt deeply sick. Profoundly ill. As if I had done it. And so then I had to stop."
But with a bit of distance came a laconic kind of black humour that later, she went back and painted over her story in layers.
Was she apprehensive about showing the book to her ex husband? "Not at all," she says. I was apprehensive about showing it to my agent ... . But I wasn't apprehensive about showing it to my ex husband. Because I knew that he would just love it. I knew it would appeal to his sense of humour. And that he's not stupid enough to think that it's about him. He gets the whole concept of fiction." Indeed, she says that on the contrary, this whole episode, and his generous response to the new phase in her career, has helped to bring them closer.
I wonder if the process of writing this book – of venting rage perhaps, helped her reconcile herself to the end of the marriage. But Young is too sharp to accept such neatly wrapped endings. "I think you just learn to live with loss," she says. "And I think that the loss of a family is huge. And I think many people try to re-establish family with someone else. But for me it was just a four-year grieving over the loss of family. I think for anyone ... a happy family is an amazing thing to have.
"You feel like a bad parent, you feel hugely responsible. It's just so much to take on board and learn to live with. And I've learnt the best we can do is talk about it. Talk to our kids about it and explain stuff and listen to them. And understand that things aren't going to be easy for them, but hopefully what you can give them is the ability to talk about that."
After everything she's been through, Natalie Young has proved that both in art and life, she has the strength and the stomach to face the whole bloody mess.