Nothing Tastes as Good by Claire Hennessy review: close to the bone
The pressures felt by young women to fit a mould come through clearly in these stories
Claire Hennessy: the Dublin author understands her young adult audience and is careful never to preach.
Nothing Tastes As Good
Hot Key Books
“It doesn’t matter how awful celery tastes, nothing will ever taste as good as skinny feels.” With a title that appropriates Kate Moss’s famous line on dieting and body image, Claire Hennessy’s new novel sets out its stall from the beginning. Nothing Tastes as Good is young adult crossover fiction that centres on the tale of two older teenagers with eating disorders. It is Hennessy’s first UK-wide publication, though she has written a number of books for the Irish young adult market and no doubt sees plenty of others through her role as the Puffin Ireland editor at Penguin.
The Dublin author understands her young adult audience and is careful never to preach. The dangers of dieting and the pressures felt by young women to fit a certain, tiny mould come through clearly in the stories of her characters, without any labouring of the message. Hennessy achieves this through a clever narrative device – the ghost of teenager Annabel McCormack, a 17-year-old whose heart failed because of anorexia, and who is sent back as a spirit guide to a former schoolmate now in danger.
“Remember what we used to say,” Annabel says, revealing her mindset. “Every time you say ‘no thank you’ to food, you say ‘yes please’ to skinny.”
It is a view unchanged by her death. She remains rebellious and angry, convinced her anorexia was not the problem: “I don’t object to the term, just the context: like it’s a disease instead of a lifestyle.”
Power and control are major themes; crippling self-esteem issues combine with the need to feel superior. A teenager who was moved around a lot because of her father’s work, Annabel used her body as a way to exert control. Of Julia Jacobs, the girl she is sent to help, Annabel says: “I hate being around people like her, spilling out of their clothes, so out of control . . . There should be protruding ribs, gorgeous bone.”
As Annabel literally hovers over Julia’s sixth-year existence at the elite Richmond School in Dublin, the reader comes to quickly understand that both girls will learn from each other on their respective journeys. That, for Annabel, this journey can only pertain to a spirit world adds a layer of poignancy to the narrative. As her friend Susan, another girl with anorexia that Annabel meets in hospital, memorably puts it: “She could have been anything. A pilot. A teacher. A doctor. A zoo-keeper. A mother. A CEO. An archaeologist. A painter. An actress. An accountant. Instead she chose to be thin.”
Meanwhile, on Earth, Julia Jacobs is juggling study, being the editor of her school magazine, her feelings for fellow student Gavin and a somewhat under-explored murky past with her best friend’s father, the big-shot journalist “Call Me Dermot”.
An early twist sees Annabel act as a hindrance rather than help to Julia, picketing her mind and encouraging her to starve herself when she feels under pressure: “If you are strong you will parcel it out. Tiny mouthfuls. Leave some on your plate, quieten that place inside you that is screaming for more.”
Later passages see Julia hunt down Annabel and her younger sister for an article on eating disorders, a storyline that seems too coincidental and may also leave readers wondering how a former schoolmate’s tragic death in this age of social media was kept secret, even if she did switch schools.
Having Annabel as a spirit that can see into the thoughts of all characters lends an omniscience to proceedings that sometimes results in sections where more is told than shown. Hennessy doesn’t give too much of Annabel’s back story and descent into illness, preferring instead to focus on Julia, the girl who can still be saved.
Both female leads are engaging and vibrant. Annabel’s snarky voice and frustration at being dead bring comedy to her sad story. Julia’s intelligence and outward-looking attitude offer a plucky modern heroine who has been brought low by circumstance. Her history with Call Me Dermot is well handled, a complex subplot that doesn’t villainise but rather presents a real picture of a questionable situation.
Louise O’Neill’s novels come to mind in terms of theme and the way important subjects for young women are intelligently explored. “This is why we look at pictures, to inspire us,” says Annabel in one of her many haunting lines. “To help us see what we can be, to remind us that we can be better.”
There are also similarities with another recent debut, Boo, by the American writer Neil Smith, which sees a dead teenager commenting on contemporary issues from above.
Nothing Tastes as Good deals with its core issues in an original and engaging manner. It will connect with a young adult readership interested in learning more about eating disorders without being lectured. Or as Annabel herself puts it: “I don’t want to just be some cautionary tale.”