Review originally appeared at mysteryandsuspsense.com
His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.
Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. 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.
There are certain horror stories that grip you from the beginning simply due to the premise. In Tender is the Flesh, we learn a virus has made all animals inedible. With a lack of meat, people turn on each other, and eventually it becomes normal to go to the supermarket and pick up human meat to feed your family. This basic concept is horrifying, and by the time Tender is the Flesh begins, the entire world finds this practice acceptable.
Marcos works in the meat industry, a buyer for his dying father’s slaughterhouse, and estranged from his wife. He inspects his family’s slaughterhouse, buys meat from farmers, and makes sure all the customer orders are fulfilled and the customers are happy. This is actually pretty normal business if the business is not buying, selling, and killing humans.
Society has rules. For example, it is still illegal to eat someone with a first and last name, and there should be no personal contact between humans and the herd. All of the herd humans are to be registered and inspected. When Marcos receives a woman as a gift from one of the farmers, he does not know what to do with her, so he keeps her in his barn and goes about his life. This solution feels like the entirety of this novel, how everything is so terrible that the characters do not even see that it is terrible anymore. Instead they go about their business and their lives with just this little change to the culture.
There are many aspects of this novel that can be picked apart and examined, like how people can turn other people into food as long as there are rules and regulations and how those who cannot afford the meat in the store spend time at the slaughterhouse fence to get some of the leftovers, like how animals are treated during the outbreak and now that society has moved forward from eating them, or like how the virus affected animals but not humans, as if there was a barrier between the two. One of the small undercurrents that I could discuss all day is did the virus even exist or was it made by the government to control the population? Marcos’s sister always has an umbrella outside because she is afraid that she will get infected by birds flying over and her getting hit with their droppings, but that brings up the question of how birds exist? It makes me believe that the story before this story is just as important and a great thing to speculate. Even though this is a short novel, there is so much depth to explore that Tender is the Flesh is a novel that will be valuable to reread often.
Tender is the Flesh (or Cadáver exquisito) is one of those books that it will be difficult to forget. There are no stories like it, but elements of it did remind me of the detachment of Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, the government anxiety of Orwell’s 1984, and of course the description of meat packing plants like in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Even though the feelings are comparable, the books are not. Tender is the Flesh stands as a unique work that really shows that horror is created by society just as much (if not more) than by individuals.
I received this as an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.