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A Soldier's Steamy Affair: 'Meat Loves Salt'

As a writer of very contemporary books, I don't think of myself as especially keen on historical novels. Yet some of my favorite books of recent years have been just that: Matthew Kneale's hilarious English Passengers, E.L. Doctorow's harrowing Civil War tale The March, and most of all, Maria McCann's novel about what the English regard as the real Civil War, As Meat Loves Salt.

I remember when I first idly opened this book over my morning coffee. I had other plans for that day, yet after about 10 pages, I put those plans aside. Indulging myself, I curled into the living room armchair and galloped on as the sun rose high. I don't, alas, often say this of any novel as an adult, but I could not put it down.

As Meat Loves Salt is narrated by a brooding, intermittently violent young man named Jacob who does not know himself. In flight from a murder and a brief, disastrous marriage, he joins Cromwell's New Model Army, from which he and his new friend, Ferris, eventually go AWOL. It isn't until halfway through the novel that Jacob realizes, and we realize, that the tension between the two men is sexual, and they embark on a torrid affair. Yet in the 1640s, the mild, accepting term "gay" had yet to be coined; bookshops didn't have whole sections cheerfully devoted to "gay literature." Rather, homosexuality was a hanging offense. Jacob and Ferris' passionate, fractious relationship courts calamity.

I happen to be straight and female. Yet McCann's novel -- to my incredulity, her first -- is one of the most erotic I have ever read, but it isn't, like so much erotic literature, embarrassing. Her language is carefully couched in the terms of the time without ever becoming fusty, coy or obscure; we know perfectly well what she means when she writes, "His blood was up."

Moreover, the historical details are seamlessly interwoven into the text, and rather than seem to show off how much homework the author has done, they create the sense of immediacy that I need to get hooked by a historical novel. After all, the past was once the present. Thus McCann has written a tony version of We Were There at the English Civil War. Ever since reading this book, I've felt curiously proprietary about the conflict -- as if I truly know what it was like; as if I were there.

Apparently, McCann was a schoolteacher when she wrote this novel, and used to get up at 5 a.m. every weekday to write a few more pages -- making me feel quite the lazy bones in comparison. But so professional was her work that when her editor showed her manuscript to an expert on the period, the only error he discovered was a particular postal vehicle, which wasn't used until a few years later. That's pretty high marks.

My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lionel Shriver

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