I make up my mind fast. I knew at once that I wanted to go to Exeter University instead of Cambridge, over ten years ago. As soon as I kissed Chris, eight and a half years ago, I knew that I was going to marry him, and we celebrated our fifth anniversary in July. And I knew before I finished As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann that it was going straight onto my list of favourite books, books that I want to keep forever, books that I buy in multiple so that I can keep giving them away.
It was first published in 2001, at a time when I wasn't particularly paying attention to new books. I'm glad I didn't read it then, because I think I would have been too young for it. Not because of the vivid, horrifying scenes of battle (it is set during the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century). Not because of the sex (although there is plenty). I was 22 then, and had been reading widely for a very long time. What I don't think I would have coped with then was a narrator who seems to define the word 'anti-hero', who is unremittingly unpleasant for most of the book. He does not come to a grand redemption in the end, either, merely a realisation of what he is. "The glances of the London people had told me I was far from ugly. But I was afflicted with an ugliness of soul that no physick could correct".
Through my adolescence I was obsessed with the seventeenth century, and sought out novels set therein. I devoured Margaret Irwin, full of what A. S Byatt describes as "heady romantic emotion". I still have her Civil War quartet (Royal Flush, The Proud Servant, The Stranger Prince and The Bride) but I haven't dared to read them in years, fearing to find them leaden where I remember gold. As Meat Loves Salt is a different kind of book, one that feels far more real (I won't comment on historical accuracy, it is definitely Not My Period). Its people are not heroes and heroines moving though a shining world, intense as a miniature on ivory. They are messy and imperfect, even downright repellent, and they do not have tidy endings. I encountered it in an article in the Guardian, giving famous authors' choices of unfairly overlooked books, where it was recommended by Lionel Shriver. I've never actually read any of Shriver's own books, but her description of As Meat Loves Salt was so compelling that I immediately requested it from the library, and have spent the past three days lost in it. Now, having emerged blinking into the twenty-first century again, I find that it is entirely out of print. The copy shown above is the local library's, and the last borrower was over a year ago. Despite strong temptation, I will return it when it is due, and seek out my own copy. Or copies, rather, because I can think of several people I want to hand this to.