I had very mixed feelings about reading Meat. On the one hand I know Joseph D’Lacey is an amazing writer; Black Feathers is one of my top books of 2013. He has this ability to get under your skin, exposing your deepest fears. Which is what brings me to my ‘other hand’ – as a vegetarian for more than twenty years I did feel apprehensive about what I might find between the covers of Meat. Especially as D’Lacey himself became veggie not long after writing the book. So it was with my strongest stomach that I read Meat. And did I need it, it is a horrifying story that disgusted me at times. But I also thought it was totally brilliant and would like to press it into the hands of all my non-vegetarian friends.
The story centres on Richard ‘Ice Pick’ Shanti, a legend at the Magnus Meat processing plant. His skill, speed and dexterity with a stun gun are matched by his seeming imperviousness to the mental toll such a job takes. Working as a stunner takes it toll on most and is a task usually rotated to help keep the workers’ sanity intact, but
‘if anyone could lay a captive bolt gun to the brow of a living creature from this day to retirement without a single day off, it was the Ice Pick’.
Shanti harbours secrets though; he may be able to do the job but he is definitely weighed down by it. To cope, to atone, he runs every day laden with a backpack, exhausting his body to the point of collapse. He also refuses to eat the meat he so efficiently helps slaughter. Not only is he rejecting his entitlement as an employee at Magnus Meat, he’s also contravening the prevailing religious doctrine.
Shanti comes under increasing scrutiny as his inner thoughts become harder to conceal. Unable to accept the words of the holy Book of Giving or the Gut Psalter he searches for an alternative way of living. His strength is his core of compassion that allows him to see what others are wilfully blind to. His actions make him an enemy of the church and big business. These two pillars of the community are dependant on each other in an uneasy and unholy alliance. Each would happily and greedily consume the other given the chance.
Some parts of the book are hard to read, for example the descriptions of the production line and the treatment of the cattle are tough going. The sadism of Rory Magnus, the boss of Magnus Meat, is even worse. It would be hard to imagine a more deeply unpleasant man; Magnus has no redeeming qualities at all. His actions are deliberate and designed to cause pain and terror. Most of his employees act with as little thought as possible, mindlessly obedient, and unthinkingly compliant - like sheep perhaps.
There are some lovely touches too. I particularly enjoyed the system of medicine created along with the religious doctrine. Ailments are treated on a like-for-like basis with parts of the cattle; eating the intestines for example would treat a stomach disorder. It’s so logical and (to me) repulsive. A few knockout twists give the story even more punch. I loved the development of the character of Parson Mary too. For me, it echoes the slither of hope that a better way can be found, and that Shanti’s struggle will not be in vain. Meat is a challenging read but definitely worth overcoming one’s squeamishness for.
Meat is now available in paperback and eBook from Oak Tree Press; my thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy to review.