** There are some spoilers, but I’ve tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible while still discussing the book as richly as possible.**
Nothing tastes as good as a book that is nothing short of a carefully crafted masterpiece. Claire Hennessy’s Nothing Tastes as Good is everything YA needs in terms of explaining eating disorders – and perhaps validating them, too, to those who suffer. Just short of 18-year-old Annabel McCormack is light and free and thin…and dead. Assigned to ‘help’ an ex-classmate of hers, Julia, in order to get a message back to her family, Annabel becomes the persuasive voice in Julia’s head that was so present in Annabel’s for the duration of her short life.
I have so much to say about Nothing Tastes as Good. I think everyone has, at this point, seen anorexia be glamorised as this beautiful, tragic illness that exclusively befalls girls of a certain class, and is generally depicted as a defiance and a First World Problem. Nothing Tastes as Good tackles not one, not two, but four different types of anorexia. Annabel wanted to be nothing. There was no singularly identifiable reason for her eating disorder (that we see as readers, anyway). Perhaps it was her parents frustration at her refusal to eat. Them seeing it as a defiant act, and the anger that came at her reluctance to cooperate with treatment. I think as anyone with any sort of mental health difficulty knows, it is very, very hard to accept any form of help if you firmly believe you do not need it in the first place. For Annabel, not eating was the norm. Calorie-counting, therapist-belittling, conspiring, sneaking, hiding and refusal were all normal behaviours for her. Hennessy skillfully demonstrates the complexity of anorexia and how sometimes, there is no single event or moment in time that defined a person’s eating habits.
I have never suffered from anorexia. I have issues with food
(I may talk about that here someday) and body image, but have never experienced what anorexia sufferers refer to as the ‘ana voice’. For some, the thought of someone they love ‘hearing voices’ is terrifying. We’ve spent so long embroiled in a media-centric society that pushes the idea that hearing voices is dangerous and a sign of ‘madness’ that it is hard to not panic at the thought of voices that aren’t ours. TV and film tropes really, really have a lot to answer for and it’s something I’ll never not get upset about. Hennessy has achieved something that I don’t believe has been done before – she has successfully characterised anorexia. She has successfully, and beautifully, characterised the ana voice. Told from Annabel’s point of view, Nothing Tastes as Good fully explores how food difficulties can creep into a person’s life.
Annabel did not enter the mind of someone who was perfectly fine until she rocked up, rolling her eyes at everything and more than disapproving of carrot sticks. She pushed and pushed at the thoughts of someone who was already struggling with binge eating.
Oh yes. Binge Eating Disorder,
(you can bet your bottom dollar I’ve already written about it) anorexia’s ‘non-glamorous’ sister illness. The illness portrayed as greed. As lack of control. As laziness. Fat is bad. Fat is ugly. These are the messages we receive daily. Julia is struggling with events that are slowly revealed throughout the book (I’m trying to make this as non-spoilery as possible so I will not reveal The Events but: ohmygod). In order to combat the feelings she was having around The Events, and the subsequent self-esteem nosedive, Julia took to seeking comfort in food. Several dinners. Bags of chocolate. The thought of carb-laden food was like a blanket to her. Truthfully, BED is not greed, or lack of control. In the same way a person with anorexia gets mental rewards from not eating, a person with BED will get mental rewards from eating excessively, whether that’s a sugar-related high, or giving into persistent cravings in order to dampen negative feelings they may be experiencing. In so many ways, Nothing Tastes as Good is clever, clever clever. Annabel finally breaks through the barriers Julia has put up. Convinces her that she’s not pretty, because she’s not thin. Convinces her that fat is bad. Slowly, slowly, Annabel starts to take over. Julia’s issues with food switch from one extreme to another.
Annabel is the girl we were all a bit afraid of in school. She’s sarcastic. She’s snarky. She doesn’t approve of things. She’s judgemental. She’s dismissive. And she’s hiding a wealth of issues that she can’t bring herself to admit to. My one warning about this book would be that it will get inside your head. For some, it may be temporarily triggering
(and Hot Key Books are great for showing on the cover the sort of themes that may be of a sensitive issue for some readers). For others, it’ll stay with you. I had an incident the other day where a chocolate digestive was sacrificed to the hairy green carpet at Big Smoke after it slid off the plate I was carrying. ( Sorry Claire) I lamented the loss of the biscuit, wondering what sort of Biscuit Ghost had caused the poor digestive to meet its untimely end, and then reasoned that it was probably because I had briefly considered risking eating one ( Disclaimer: I am coeliac and in reality, would not have risked it for a chocolate biscuit) (It’s unknown whether she floats or stands; she’s just present) and slowly reaching over and flicking the biscuit onto the floor. Rolling her eyes and saying ‘oh sure, it’s disgusting now because it’s on the floor, but it was perfectly fine before that? Please.’ It occurred to me in that moment that for those with eating disorders, that is the sort of self-talk that goes on. That voice is Annabel. ‘Ana’ personified. It’s the voice of someone you would never let speak to your friends or family members the way you let it speak to you. Ever-present, she’s bitchy, she’s mean, she’s cruel, and she lies about how you look because skinny has lost all meaning to her. There was always thinner. There was always better. Except that voice will never tell you when you’ve reached better.
It becomes quite clear that Annabel has not just done damage to Julia; her friend Helen was determined to stay ill (another example of a type of anorexia sufferer; a fear of not being good enough and a perpetual need to compare herself to someone else skinny and ill) because of Annabel, and her little sister was preoccupied with thoughts that had been planted by Annabel herself – big girls don’t eat. The knowledge at age 12 of what a calorie is. It’s unclear from the story whether it is just a case that the girls were from the same environment and Imogen was just predisposed to anorexia, or if it is that Annabel’s death was the catalyst. Upon reflection, it’s probably both. It’s not fair to blame Annabel, though, as even if she hadn’t been open with Imogen in the things she told her about her disorder, it is quite possible that Imogen would’ve found it online. Indeed, she did in a way – for a while, Julia and Imogen shared tips on how to lose weight. From an outsider perspective, an 18 year old conspiring with the 12 year old sister of a 17 year old dead anorexia sufferer is horrific. Julia acknowledges it eventually, but in her mind the only thing that was really important at the time was getting support in what she was doing. The importance of seeking solace in finding someone who understood, just as Annabel had in Helen. It’s horrifying, but mirrors the sort of things that are but a Google search away – websites where teenagers can find an ‘ana buddy’ as someone to support them in weightloss, goading each other into not eating and setting mutual calorie limits. Harrowing, horrible, but a sad reality – and all most likely as a result of the fact that anorexia is ‘so glamorous’. There’s nothing glamorous about it. Annabel died from heart failure as a result of anorexia. Julia fainted in front of a teacher because her body didn’t have enough energy to keep her conscious. Imogen will most likely suffer problems with stunted growth and development issues at the very least if she doesn’t recover in the near future (something we will never know, but can think about).
Nothing Tastes as Good is not just a story about anorexia. It is a story which also features Realistic Imperfect But Pretty Awesome Teenage Boy, Realistic Supportive Friend Who Has Her Own Issues and Isn’t Just There to Serve MC, Friends Who Turn Out To Be Kinda Shitty and Self-Serving But The MC Figures it Out On Her Own, Parents Who Don’t Worry About Their Children Enough But Who Are Still Present in Their Children’s Lives, and FEMINISM. The solution to The Event that Julia reaches is laced with epic displays of awesomeness and kick-ass bravery.
The best aspect of the whole book, though? There’s no definitive happy ending. There is no way of knowing how well Julia will recover. If she’ll cope in college. If she’ll still be friends with Gavin and Maria. If Imogen will ever be able to get past her sister’s death. If she’ll ever recover. If Helen will ever fully recover. And that’s the beauty of it. Annabel is an ever-existing ghost. She is assigned to different people at different times. She may return to Julia. She may join Helen, or Imogen. There may be other girls, or guys. Recovery is never, ever black or white. Definitive. Final. There are ups and downs. There are wobbles. It’s hard. It’s possible. But it’s uncertain. That’s the reality of anorexia, or any mental illness. It’s uncertain, yet hopeful in the right conditions.
To summarise: Nothing Tastes as Good is a fresh take on the realities of anorexia and binge eating, and you absolutely need to read it.
When it’s out, though.
Which in Ireland is May 26th (There’ll be a launch at 6.30pm in Department 51 on Easons O’Connell Street which you should definitely attend!) and in the UK, July 14th.