Review: As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

Narrator Jacob Cullen, educated but now a servant, flees his royalist household, taking his bride of just an hour and his brother after a cold blooded murder. In a second act of terrible brutality, he beats and rapes his wife. Becoming a pikeman in Cromwell’s New Model Army, he befriends Christopher Ferris, an idealist disaffected by the Army and in search of a less tainted freedom. And so the two desert and head for London and the pleasures of Cheapside–and each other. Jacob becomes “a fornicator of unnatural appetite, in thrall to an Atheist… I was in love”. But Ferris is intent on establishing a commune, a prospect Jacob reviles, yet to keep his lover he has no choice but to join the motley band.

Review by Erastes

Jacob Cullen, a man of hasty temper and with an unstable temperment is forced, for reasons I won’t divulge, to flee the manor where he serves with his wife and his brother. Very soon he falls out with them and they desert him, leaving him to attempt to walk to Bristol. He falls in with The New Model Army (Cromwell’s Army) and joins them for a month or two in which time he becomes obsessed with Christopher Ferris, a troubled but basically good man.

This is a very clever book, in a lot of ways. It’s incredibly well researched, and makes my version of the English Civil War seem rather shallow in comparison. Tthe immersion into the period is deep, convincing and realistic. It does what I always appreciate in a book, it tells of the world without over describing it. After all, when you walk into a room you don’t think “I walked into the room where there were two Persian rugs four Hepplethwhite chairs, some red velvet curtains and a desk with…. ” You simply describe what is immediate. This book does that; it’s not to say that there isn’t superb period detail in there, there is, but it’s only brought out when it’s necessary. Clothes for example. Jacob’s clothes are described in exquisite detail at one point, right down to lace and buttons but they are amazing clothes, nothing the like of which he’s seen or worn before – so it makes perfect sense for him to describe them. And so it goes, that’s how the book is, never info dumping, but making you feel you are there.

What really impressed me more than anything else is the sure bravery that the author shows in writing this 1. from the point of view of a man, a soldier in that time – knowing that she was going to have to show his view of the war etc but 2. That Jacob is just about as unpleasant a character as I’ve ever read about. I can’t believe that Ms McCann meant him to be anything else, and as far as I am concerned she suceeded admirably. As an author, I can’t imagine how any writer can embark on a story like this and yet – why not? Most of us are pretty unpleasant types! However, my hat is off to her. Not only did she write about a man with (as far as I was concerned, your mileage may vary) no redeeming qualities save that he loves another man but she kept me hooked into the book so deeply that I was willing him to have some kind of redemption, to bring about some miraculous ending which I could tell, even quite early on was never going to happen.

Jacob is truly unpleasant, but so brilliantly written that he’s hardly even aware of it himself for most of the book. Of course, this is perfectly sensible – how many of us actually think we are awful people? Jacob’s sense of self-loathing however, is ingrained in every page, less so at the beginning and ebbs and flows throughout, but gradually working into a crescendo ending with the last two heartbreaking lines. It again shows such skill that I wanted to smack/kick/kill Jacob for most of the book and yet he had me sobbing when I reached the last page.

I suppose in this day and age he would be known as a Sociopath – and in fact if you read the list of Sociopath social traits on this page you would think that Ms McCann made a note of all those character traits and started with Jacob using this as a base. What I don’t understand , even though I’ve re-read the first chapters several times to get a gleaning of it, is WHY he did what he did at Beaurepair. I can’t see any reason for it, other than he just “wanted to”.

I pitied him, immensely, because I could tell that he wasn’t going to change, but I pitied Ferris even more because he’d fallen in love with the wrong man, and that’s something I can relate to, big time. But Ferris was a grown man, and he had plenty of choices to cast Jacob aside – and could have done – and didn’t. He even dumped poor Nathan without a word, and as far as I know nothing more than a shirt looted from Basing to run off with a man who he knew he couldn’t change. He was taking a risk too, as at that point he didn’t even know if Jacob was going to be acquiescent to a homosexual relationship and he was leaving behind an established one for an uncertain future. But I guess I understand that. Better to leave a lesser love for the promise of The Big One. And Jacob could have been The Big One if he hadn’t’ve stuffed it up, like he stuffed everything up.

As a nice change this book wasn’t OKhomo (everyone’s gay and everyone’s OK about it) and I didn’t expect it to be as it isn’t a Romance and I was expecting it to be an accurate historical novel. In fact the men are’nt “GAY” at all, in the way that we would know it today, they’ve both been married and allegedly in love with their wives. They both consider marrying again. Ferris I think knows his sexuality better than Jacob (who is more opportunist – I think he would have had Nathan had he offered himself up) but Jacob is (I think) drawn to Ferris first as a friend and then finds he love him. But the risks they run are very real, are reflected in every single sexual encounter they have, even when they are “safe” in Ferris’s Aunt’s house in London. I did wonder about the wooden floorboards and the wooden beds though as I found it difficult to imagine it would have been easy to muffle the sounds of male sex which can be quite acrobatic. But the danger is there, hanging, lynching, burning – all of them a very real dange, even though even then, they knew that proof would have been needed.

There was one point when I had a WTF moment and that’s when Jacob met up again with Zeb; I didn’t see the point of this – I didn’t understand how Zeb had the knowledge he had, why he didn’t use it and what the meeting was set up to do – it seemed rather pointless. But then, I guess that’s realistic – not all meetings we have in this world are filled with meaning.

All the minor characters were great. I don’t think one of them was pallid or forgettable. I think possibly because Jacob hates them all in varying degrees, partly in jealousy that he can’t bear anyone to get close to Ferris. In fact the only character that I think that Jacob truly loved was Aunt, and possibly because she was more of a mother to him than his own mother was. It was so touching when she said “don’t worry, your hair will soon grow back” and Jacob looked around “eagerly” – like a child so desperate for affection and he found she was speaking to someone else. It was a briliant moment because Jacob had actually been empathising with the woman who had been shorn, and after that, I think he lost the empathy.

The “venture” was doomed to fail from the begiining, I don’t know if any of these ventures DID suceed and there were a few of them, you can’t blame the people, they’d had Cromwell and his cronies banging on about how everyone would be granted land, and all men were created equal so it wasn’t surprising that a few people formed communes in this way.

As to the ending – the Voice – and Jacob’s gradual descent? I don’t know. It’s the kind of book that has had me thinking all day. I cried at the end, bitter frustrated tears at the stupid stupid man – but then, if he had behaved differently he’d have been with the commune at the end. Then I went and bored my dad with it for about an hour and I’m still running it through in my head. I need to read it again. Did Jacob know the date was different at the end? Did the letter get it wrong? Was it Caro? Or had Jacob’s mind broken at the loss of Ferris? Was it “Caro” with Ferris in the wood? There’s so many questions I can’t answer. On the surface it all seems plain sailing, but we are inside the head of a man on the brink of madness, and frankly – how much of it all can we trust?

And the ending – stellar. It was the only thing he could do really – he wasn’t going to kill himself, after all – not with those character traits, he’ll blame everyone else in the world before he’d blame himself – although perhaps if the colony had ALL gone on a flipping ship it would have been a different book!

So yes – I loved it. Impressed impressed impressed. By the way, there is quite a lot of sex, but it’s quite subtle, but there is a lot of it.

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25 Responses

  1. I’ve only just discovered this and wanted to say thanks for a fantastic review. This book rapidly became one of my all-time favourites; I thought it was brilliantly written, extremely well researched, and not afraid to convey the real sense of the times, blood, guts, nasty smells and all. Intensely vivid and a shockingly good read.

    I really must re-read it.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book, I’m pretty much with you 100%. It’s been ages since I read a book that enthralled me as this one did. And Jacob? Wow, what a character. Either it’s a testament to McCann’s writing, or there’s something wrong with me, but I found myself rooting for his redemption, even happiness, in spite of the fact that he’s basically a monster. One last thing: you said, “Did Jacob know the date was different at the end? Did the letter get it wrong?” I didn’t understand what you meant here, even after I went back and re-read the last chapter. The only reference I saw to a date was the ring he found…thank you.

  3. Thanks Erik – the date thing was to do with the letter, I can’t remember off the top of my head – the book’s upstairs and it’s a long time since I read it – but it was the letter that I remember, that seemed important.

  4. One hour ago I cried over this book. I can’t get it out of my mind und think about it, think about it.
    Thank you for your review. It’s good to read someones thoughts about it. Hell unholy! What a book!!!!!!!!!

  5. I also just finished this awesome book. I cannot recommend it enough.

    I differ from you in I see that two marked characteristics of Jacob’s sociopathy is his lack of impulse control and his unquestioning sense of Biblical rightouesness, one which leads him to commit the first of his “devilish” act at Beaurepair (the boy was going to expose their Puritan readings when at the time such things were treason, and Jacob acts impulsively, ie. without thinking things through). When Jacob later finds Jeb in London, Jeb tells him he is afraid that Jacob will beat him, as he did when they were younger, which Jacob at first denies, then recalls hiself, in their youth, holding a rod in his hand (for no reason that he can recall), and his father or Izzy calming him down and getting Zeb away from him.

    Essentially, Jacob burns with religous ferver at a time when religious differences were so important (and had long been!), that a nation’s government was being overthrown and reordered based on those beliefs. One thing the author does best is to show that, while of a different measure that Jacob’s, that whole society was concerned with Godliness, the Bible, the Devil, and Biblical righteousness of man (thougth, notably, Ferris is a closet non-believer, i.e. heratic)

    Also, while Jacob and Farris were, as you say, both married men and not strictly speaking, GAY, Jacob had to have Caro’s interest in him pointed out to him by his brother Izzy, HE WAS SO GAY HE DIDN’T KNOW SHE WAS HOT FOR HIM, and Ferris’s marriage was not really love but Farris’s quest for honor and rightous behaviour. He didn’t even meet the girl until she was locked in her room by her father, across the lane from him. And he married her after she was pregnant, and she died in childbirth, so they probably never knew each other, uh, biblically. (And later, Ferris is persued and actively, amourously entrapped by a woman who’s sole design is to harm Jacob) Yet, he actively persued both Nathan and Jacob. I’m guessing they both had the gay gene strong in them.

    What a terrific book, Jacob sucked me right in and I felt so, so strongly for him and his intense, obsessed love. I have to calm down and forgive Ferris for being fickle, as he was just a man, a good man, and Jacob was violent enough to him at the end to make Ferris, justifyably, cool thing way, way down.

    Such an excellent book, written just beautifully.

    • I feel like you and I read different books. I just finished reading it a few hours ago and it’s not that Jacob was stopped from beating Zeb but that he remembered that he had been there and went blank on what happened after.

      I also remember Ferris mentioning something about being a passionate lover with his wife? I don’t think it was as cut and dried.

      • Well, everyone’s opinion is only that – their opinion and therefore very subjective. As to cut and dried – no, of course not. Both men were married and Ferris was in love with his wife – there was no real concept of gay, but that’s what makes gay historicals so fascinating, for me.

  6. I just want to be clear with the ending, Did Ferris and Caro survive or did they both die?

  7. I panicked as I got to the end of this book. Panicked because I read it at night and couldn’t bear the thought of not having it to read anymore.
    It gripped me in a way no other book has. I actually shut the book in horror when Becs walked in on Jacob and Ferris and didn’t open it till the next night…the suspense killed me!
    Superb writer. Utterly consuming.

    • I finished this book today and feel like I am in mourning. I was so wrapped up in the story I was unable to analyze anything – I was so shocked when I realized that Jacob was essentially a rapist, surely he’ll never stop being that way, and yet, I was on his side rooting for him! I so wanted him to get Ferris back one more time, with no thought of Ferris’s well being!

      • yes, that’s just how i felt at the end, and that’s what makes it such a clever book – you find yourself rooting for him, and you know what a perfectly horrible person he is!

  8. I enthusiastically add my voice to this chorus of praise. I could not put this book down, until I realized it was almost over, and then tried to delay finishing it. The tension was often so beautifully constructed I found myself reading too fast and had to go back in order to fill in details. I recommend anything by Colm Toibin; that’s how I’m dealing with Jacob withdrawal. There’s also an early Mary Renault book, “The Charioteer.” Is Maria McCann writing another novel? One can only hope.

  9. definetly one of my my all time favourites, god this book had me so emotionally torn at the end all i could do was sob. Even though Jacob was undeniably bat sh*t crazy, I often sympathized with him, even when he ruined the best thing he had for him [Ferris]. I am the only one who thinks Jacob could have been schizophrenic? [the Voice] And was Sister Jane, was really Caro? [which i think probably was.] Brilliant review by the way.

  10. I got disturbed by the fact that Jacob raped Caro in the book. That part makes me hate Jacob so much.

  11. Yes, I was so confused at the end – was it Caro or wasn’t it? I think it may have been Caro, but were she and Ferris really in the bushes or did Jacob just imagine it because he was over the edge? I was thinking maybe it was her and another man, not Ferris at all? I can’t imagine Jacob handling the sight & sound of that calmly in reality. And why did Ferris never take back his key from Jacob? Was it because he didn’t want anything more to do with him no matter what, or because he still loved him and wanted him to have it?

  12. Hazelmaven, I believe it really was Caro and that she was with Ferris in the woods. Jacob was paranoid and jealous, for sure, but, there was no indication of him being delusional before the arrival of Caro. As far as him handling the sight and sound of Caro and Ferris together calmly, he states “The run had emptied me of strength, else there might have been murder done.” He had also just fallen and was in some pain, so that may have taken some of the fire out of him.
    As far as the key goes, I’m not sure I would have tried to retrieve it from Jacob, but he could, have at least moved the box.

    In response to Lains comment – I think that whether or not they died is unknown to us, because it’s unknown to Jacob. When he is back in the city, he imagines that he sees Ferris on the street and at one point says “…and I told myself he had most likely survived, and was even now turning the corner.”

  13. HELP Good Brothers and Sisters, I just finished As Meat Loves Salt and need some recommendations on books to ease withdrawal pains.

    • What kind of thing are you after?

      • Obsession as much as love, at least one of the men with admirable strength of character, the other one ambiguous or dark. Have you ever read Edward,Edward by Lolah Burford? I think it should be on your list.

    • Edward Edward is certainly on the list! We haven’t reviewed it yet, because no-one’s read it – i’ve been trying to get hold of a reasonable copy. As for your criteria, I think I’m about the only person writing dark characters these days! LOL – but check out the reviews done page, you’re bound to found something good there!

  14. Thank you for taking the time to reply. Will certainly check out your books! Great website!

  15. So I just finished reading this book and it left me so emotionally torn up that I went searching the web to see what others thought and I ran across this site. First off: great review. I agree with a lot of the points you make. I was deep into the book when I finally realized what a horrible person Jacob truly is. Granted, he’s seriously mentally ill, what with that Voice inside his head, but his actions aren’t excusable. I think the part that cut me the deepest is the fact that Ferris truly seemed to love Jacob, and that he loved him still even in the end, after all the things that Jacob did, including their last brutal sexual encounter. I reread the last pages several times over, mainly because I was weeping uncontrollably. I do wonder, was the gold ring Jacob found in the box of money which Jacob took for Ferris’s wedding ring actually inscribed with Jacob’s initials rather than Joanna’s? It was inscribed CF (Christopher Ferris) and JC (Jacob Cullen rather than Joanna Cooper?)–that part tore at me as well.

    • So glad you enjoyed the book, it’s masterful – and thank you for liking the review as well. I need to read the book again, but like At Swim Two Boys, I’m too chicken!

  16. I think Jane is not Caro at all. Jacob has finally lost it, because he feels he has lost Ferris. Come on, he is unstable from the beginning of the book. When I had read that the new woman was actually Caro i thought “not another soap opera turn”, but I then realized something is amiss in Jacobs mind. Also I dont’t think Ferris was cheating, it’s again Jacob’s mind that plays tricks on him. It could have been Catherine and her husband in the hidding place. Lets not forget that Jacob is the narator, he tells us what he thinks happened. I think Ferris is until the end an idealist who fights for Jane out of sheer duty. He remarks somewhere in the book that without Jacob beside him, he wouldnt endure his aunt’s death. I like the ending because we dont know what happens to him. He’s probably dead, but even if he survived the attack, he would be without his aunt, Jacob and without his dream so, I guess, as good as dead. I have to read the book again to make some things clear, but not just yet. I cried like a fool re-reading the ending, where Jacob remembers Ferris and Im emotionally drained. Amazing book.

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