Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
Tender is the Flesh is the latest novel from Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica, published by Pushkin Press.
After the animals became infected with the disease, it soon became apparent that their meat was also poisoned. To replace the cheap, easy meat we’ve all become used to, a new ‘special’ meat, from humans bred and reared specifically for the food chain.
Marcos is one of the few people who worked in abattoirs both before and after the virus. With skills handed down from his father, he killed animals quickly and humanely, but since the ‘special’ meat was introduced his work has begun to affect him more and more.
Tender is the Flesh begins by introducing Marcos and following him as he joins two interviewees on their tour of the abattoir facilities. He watches the candidates as they’re shown the holding pens and have the quality of the ‘heads’ (the humans bred for eating) explained to them. He knows the drill as they’re rushed past the areas where the breeders are kept, hiding the fact that the females’ limbs are often removed to stop them from hurting the prized young meat they carry. One of the interviewees struggles with everything he sees; the other seems to thrive on it, showing a blood list that turns Marcos’ stomach.
It’s not just the abattoir that weighs heavy on Marcos’s’ head but his family life too. His father is coming to his final days in a care home, and his sister hasn’t even been to see him, let alone helped with the costs. On top of that, after their baby passed away, his wife has moved back in with her mother. Left to grieve and cope on his own, the pressure of a life consumed by death starts to take its toll.
Tender is the Flesh is one of the darkest, most disturbing books I’ve ever read. This isn’t due to the occasional graphic content (or disturbing sex scene) but the representation of a world that has completely lost its humanity.
Details of the virus that led to the need for ‘special meat’ are thin on the ground and the first third of this short novel focuses on the abattoir, allowing a gruesome insight into the logistics of the situation. Marco’s view of the world is described in short, sharp sentences that accentuate his increasing detachment from what’s going on around him. Instead of detailed descriptions on his feelings, his emotions sway from anger to perpetual exhaustion, implying he simply hasn’t the energy for anything else. The shock and the trauma of his situation and losing his son has left him empty and broken.
This novel is not for the faint-hearted. I’m not squeamish, I enjoy horror films, and I worked at an emergency veterinary surgery where I saw all sorts of grizzly stuff that helped in giving me an iron stomach, but this book still got under my skin. I find the theme of ‘others’ in novels fascinating but galling. By this, I mean when humans classify another group of humans as worthless or beneath them (please let me know if there’s a real term for this!). Whether it’s class, colour, nationality, or in this case, being bred for a different purpose.
Throughout Tender is the Flesh, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth Agustina Bazterrica was going to end her story. I’m happy to say I didn’t predict the ending at all and, following with the style of the novel; it’s brisk and shocking.
Shock factor is not something I’ve necessarily something I look for in a novel as I’d rather have a story well executed than shock me, but Tender is the Flesh manages to do both to perfection. Yes, I wanted more details on the virus and how the world deteriorated to the point we meet Marcos at, but that’s not what this novel is about. It’s a snapshot of a specific time, keeping it brief and utterly compelling. However, if there’s a prequel or a sequel coming, you can count on my pre-order!
Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica is an incredible literary horror that leaves you reeling like a punch in the gut.
If you liked Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, you’ll love The Troop by Nick Cutter.