(Side note: Before you say it, I know, the cover is doing way too much. The one I read had a more reserved one 😂)
'The butcher's hook' is a historical fiction, set in 1700's Britain, about how Anne (the protagonist) pushes back/navigates a potential arranged marriage that her father (mainly) was trying to force (coerce?) her into.
What surprised me about the story line was Anne's soft and almost commendable descent (or growth?) into a (psychopathic) serial killer. The motivations behind the killings were complex and I loved that.
- Anne was (sort of) seeing Fub, a young butcher
- Her former teacher found out and threatened to expose this relationship to her father
- She killed the teacher (who had also sexually assaulted her when she was younger)
- Then killed a boy who essentially knew she killed the teacher
- Then killed Margaret (Fub's potential future wife/partner, who appears slightly later) and in the process burns the butcher shop that Fub works at)
Initially, it seemed (to me) like the killings were to create space for her relationship with Fub (because I thought, "Anne, why don't you just kill your dad? Why this long thing fam?") ... but as her relationship with Fub becomes more fractured (as he becomes more indecisive about his feelings, the context of their relationship, their future etc), something happens (I remember getting to the end of the book and thinking, "Anne, is there something you didn't tell me?"). As much as the first killing was about protecting her relationship with Fub, it was also about revenge ... and discovery; the discovery of murder as a logical and viable thing, and what that meant for her as a person. (Sort of like 'Dexter', where he almost equally killed as a form of retributive justice but also because that was how he understood himself ... as a killer. There was a joy in setting up the kill room and dismembering the bodies and saving slides of blood). I mean, she also wanted to kill her baby sister and eventually killed Margaret when she fully knew that Fub was a wasteman 😂
After she kills Margaret, burns the butcher shop and Fub goes to see her the next day ... she's so bored and unmoved by his brokenness and tears. She's almost irritated by these human responses to tragedy, like, "How dare you be so weak and small?"... And, I loved it; this complicated, almost disordered way people feel and react to things, and the lack of language to explain it in a coherent or sequential way, makes me dance a little, because people are complicated and heavy ... and good fiction captures that.
Some bars from the book:
I did not have the words to find out properly what I wanted to know.
I cannot speak. Like a bucket full to the brim, I have been carrying myself carefully in front of her.
He's looking at me as if he'd just bought me and I was worth more than he paid.
He looks damaged, as though he had been broken down to his constituent parts and reassembled ineptly.
I thought he had left me satisfied, but I am hungry again. That is another new sensation.
I've never been this angry while reading a book. It was such a chore to read and follow ... I could barely wait to finish it, just to get it over and done with, which lowkey sucks because I was really excited about reading this.
It's (supposed to be) an autobiography of sorts, but one that (primarily) explores and examines how class and race intersect in "Negroland" (a name the author gives to the unique social/economic/cultural space that American (upper) middle class black people exist in, occupy and move around in).
That's pretty much a non-fiction recipe that can't go wrong for me: black women critically examining how race intersects with gender, class, history etc, and how that shapes and impacts black/brown women's lives and how they navigate it ... but Margo said, "Not today". It was frenetic and disjointed and abrupt and nothing fit. It felt like an awkward hug. Where more time is spent trying to figure out who's arms go where, and apologizing for not knowing how people fit into each other.
For the few times that we connected though, I managed to highlight a few lines:
I hate it when I'm having fun and race singles me out for special chores and duties.
In Negroland, we thought of ourselves as the third race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of caucasians.
White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often. The failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.
They've wanted a more socially stable neighborhood. They're touchy, though, about seeming too eager to live among white people, as if that were a good in itself.
The fashion and beauty complex has so many ways to enchant and maim.
I crave the gift of recreational shallowness. The trick of knowing when to be cleverly trivial, lightweight; when to avoid emotional excess.
Last year, I read "Cracked" by James Davies, which articulated a lot of the questions I'd been having about the increasingly medicalized way mental health is talked about/understood (especially in Western countries).
There's this automatic, unquestioning way that depression (for example) is seen as an absolute fact ... 'it is a complex mental illness, with neurochemical (or social/personal) foundations, that can/must be treated through some form of therapy and/or medication. The end'.
And, to be really real, if I had to summarize what years of undergrad/masters' degrees in psychology have taught me about depression ... it wouldn't deviate too much from that.
"Cracked" examines that framing and treatment of mental illness and "Crazy Like Us" examines how it is being exported to developing countries (essentially through imperialism and capitalism) in 4 chapters that are each individual case studies (anorexia in Hong Kong, PTSD in Sri Lanka, schizophrenia in Zanzibar and depression in Japan) (and the 5th one is the summary/analysis).
The book infuriated and saddened me, because in both a serious and light-hearted way, I kept thinking, "White people really can't leave us alone".
In the chapter on PTSD in Sri Lanka, after a tsunami, the author explains how there were swarms of white western NGOs/psychologists/psychiatrists/counsellors with tests and quizzes and checklists, ready to study and diagnose these "inevitable" sufferers of PTSD, but when they were met with reluctance and responses that didn't fit into their strict DSM definitions and behavioral patterns of what PTSD should look like, they essentially imposed it on them, ignored/finessed studies that didn't yield the results they wanted/expected etc ... because beneath it all, there was the assumption that these primitive brown people don't know how to recognise, articulate or deal with trauma/stress/pain so, at almost any cost, they must be told and shown that they are suffering and only western science can save them, while simultaneously belittling and eradicating their cultures, histories, values, traditions and beliefs.
I remember having a conversation about "Depression in 'African culture'" about 4 years ago-ish with my older brother ... and his position was that depression is largely a Western construct and that Africans (side note: Africa is not a country) based on cultural, religious and social makeup and histories have different ways of thinking about and dealing with pain. My position, because I was a fresh first year psychology undergrad, was closer to "it is a complex mental illness, with neurochemical (or social/personal) foundations, that can/must be treated through some form of therapy and/or medication". I'm closer to my brother's position now ... that mental illness is nuanced ... and that it can't (and shouldn't) be understood or treated as this unilateral thing ... a thing that has been constructed and designed in western countries, in sequestered enclaves of elitism and whiteness and maleness and straightness ... a thing that is fixed and standardized ... a thing that erases politics, culture, history and economics.
Interesting fact, did you know that with schizophrenia (for example), recovery rates are 50% higher in developing countries than in "developed" ones?
Read "Cracked" first and then this book, trust me fam.
Some bars from the book:
It takes a wilful blindness to believe that other cultures lack a meaningful framework for understanding the human response to trauma.
'Most of the disasters in the world happen outside of the West ... Yet we come in and pathologize their reactions. We say, "You don't know how to live with this situation". We take their cultural narratives away from them and impose ours. It's a terrible example of dehumanizing people'.
Anorexia and eating disorders could tell us much about the pressure of women in different cultures if only their voices weren't being drowned out by Western narratives about the power of fashion, dieting and pop culture.
One meaningful way to compare cultural beliefs about mental illness is to ask this simple question: Which cultural beliefs tend to exclude the sufferer from the social group and which allow the ill individual to remain part of the group?
10 out of 10 out of a blooming 10!!! (3 exclamation points, so you know it's real. Also, stop playing and read this bruv)
The book's about Eileen, who floats between a painfully miserable, soul-sucking job at a boys' prison and half-heartedly taking care of her tortured, alcoholic father, while living in a dreary, forgotten town, where nothing happens... until Rebecca starts working as a psychologist at the prison.
It's a thriller/dark comedy ... sort of like a mix between 'The Office' and 'Fargo' (the movie). I found myself cackling*, almost uncontrollably, at how Eileen described and understood herself. She's almost like the friend who gets too honest and you have to preemptively stop them especially when you're around other people.
For example, she talks about affection and intimacy (from men) as these profoundly detestable things but also acknowledges how the lack of them has left her almost irrational and desperate for them:
"Being kidnapped was something of a secret wish of mine. At least then I'd know that I mattered to someone, that I was of value. Violence made much more sense to me than any strained conversation".
There are very complex, complicated, forgiving, nuanced, honest ways, in which only female authors can describe women's lives and bodies and how the designs of the world shape and distort how we live and move in it.
I felt it in my lungs ... I was listening to a woman.
Some fire quotes:
There's nothing I detest more than men with happy childhoods.
The dress was heavy, like the hide of a strange animal.
I recall driving home that night, imagining what her body looked like under all that paisley print and gray wool. I pictured the flesh hanging from her bones like cold flanks of pork swinging from hooks at a butcher shop - thick, clammy, orange-hued fat, meat tough and bloodless and cold when the knife hacked through it.
It's funny how love can leap from one person to another, like a flea.
I lived in perpetual fantasy.
*Other books with really good, clever, outlandish, complex characters and humor:
- Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi
- The secret lives of baba Segi's wives by Lola Shoneyin
- Pastoralia by George Saunders