Cooking With Bones (25 April 2013) by Jess Richards
I almost don't know where to start with describing Cooking With Bones. This is a novel with a lot of different elements and influences, but the story as a whole is unlike anything else I've read. It's a bit like a more refined, complex, fantastical, modernised, and even more original version of Richards' debut, Snake Ropes.
The book opens in a city called Paradon. Here we meet two sisters, Amber and Maya. While Amber is an 'ordinary' girl, Maya is a formwanderer - human, but genetically engineered to mirror the desires and needs of anyone she encounters. To Amber, who as a child was desperate to have a twin sister, she is exactly that: a perfect reflection of Amber herself. To the sisters' parents, she is the perfect daughter, the favourite child. Amber, however, is growing out of her yearning for a twin and is starting to want Maya to find her own identity. At the same time, there is growing hysteria about formwanderers in the Paradon media - due to their nature they are able to act on others' unconscious desires, and as a result they are thought to be capable of killing. When the girls' parents find them separate jobs as 'Lab Assistants' (Amber in 'the Tear Lab, where sadness is measured'), Amber persuades Maya they must leave Paradon.
So this is fantasy - kind of. When the action moves outside Paradon, we see that the city is the only part of this world where society has advanced to such a stage. In Paradon, huge mirrored panels keep the city permanently sunny and warm; but in the countryside, life is simple, even backward. In a small village - its name is given as Seachant, but that's only mentioned once; for the most part, it is just 'the village' - the residents are in thrall to an ancient, unseen witch they call Old Kelp, the local school is closed because there's no coal, and the only medical assistance comes from an inexperienced doctor who lives miles away in the next town. Here we encounter the secondary protagonist, ten-year-old Kip, who delivers the 'fair' - a daily offering consisting of baking ingredients and other food - to Old Kelp's cottage every morning.
The story is about what happens when Amber and Maya come to the village, and discover Old Kelp's cottage. It's also about how an affair, two disappearances, a possible death and some difficult secrets affect the lives of the villagers, as seen through Kip's eyes. Ultimately it is about how these events come together with the stories (and beliefs) that have made this place what it is.
Cooking With Bones feels like a fairytale, replete with magic and enchantment, and indeed there are elements of myths, legends and stories woven throughout the narrative - both in the tales the villagers tell each other about Old Kelp, and how the sisters make sense of their old and new lives. Like Snake Ropes, this is a largely female-dominated story: although there doesn't seem to be any hierarchy among the villagers, it's Old Kelp who effectively rules the village, terrifying its residents so thoroughly that they won't even approach her cottage or look through the windows for fear of being cursed. And when the legend of Old Kelp is told, it's not the witch who is the hero of the story, nor her lover, the farmer Gilliam, but Gilliam's wife. In turn, this story is mirrored through the actions of the characters, with more than one 'tangle of three' affecting what happens to them all.
There are so many different things to be fascinated by in Cooking With Bones: while it's an oddity, it also has something for everyone. It's a dystopian fantasy, a murder mystery, a ghost story and a coming-of-age tale (about more than one character), with sex scenes that are more erotic than most of the stuff you find in erotic novels, but are also weird and discomfiting. It's a story about a girl who wants to be a woman, a girl who doesn't know what she wants to be (even though she could be anything at all), and a boy who might want to be a girl (or might just want to wear their clothes). It's about loving your family, leaving your family, taking on a new identity, the enduring power of stories; the power of fear, fearlessness, lust, fate, and getting to know who you really are. It's like science fiction rewritten by an author of centuries-old fairytales and then rewritten again by a modern-day feminist. There are so many ways it could be read - so many layers of meaning and mystery - but at its heart, it's also an enjoyable, emotive, funny story with great characters, and despite all the strangeness, it's very human.
I really loved this book. It's so rare to find something so unpredictable and unique yet so coherent, interesting and memorable. It's beautifully written - lyrical and evocative (with distinct voices for the three protagonists) but not so much that it feels pretentious or stops you from relating to the characters. I paid £9.99 for this - the most I've ever paid for a Kindle book, and I did wonder whether it would be worth it. However, I can now quite happily say that it most definitely was. Another beautiful cover, too - I suppose I'll end up buying the hardback edition as well, to match my gorgeous copy of Snake Ropes!
Rating: 10/10 | My full review on Goodreads (with minor spoilers!) | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback