Maren is a cannibal. There’s a hunger inside of her that she cannot control and no matter how many times she tells herself she’s not going to do it again, she inevitably does. She avoids making friends, but then some boy – it’s almost always a boy – tries to get close to her and she devours him.
Her mother has become an expert at packing up their things and getting out of town as quickly as possible, but the strain eventually becomes too much for her. The day after Maren’s sixteenth birthday, her mother abandons her. Not knowing what else to do, Maren decides to track down her father, who she suspects is also a cannibal. Along her impromptu road trip, she meets other cannibals like her, and tries to come to terms with being a monster.
Well, this was certainly something different. Not weird per se, but it certainly puts a different spin on the usual tale of a teenager discovering herself. Unlike most YA protagonists I’ve read, Maren is undoubtedly a monster. She’s a serial killer and what’s more she her victims are mostly lonely children who were just reaching out to another loner in the hope of making a friend. When she gets older, her interactions with her victims start to become overtly sexual, but none of them ever do anything without her consent. You’re not allowed to feel better because she kills a potential rapist – she’s a bad person who kills innocent people.
Which is not to say that you won’t like Maren – DeAngelis has written her as a surprisingly sympathetic character, and I liked her a lot. I think it’s because you really have an opportunity to engage with the struggles she’s going through. She knows that what she does is horrific, but it’s something she cannot control. When her mother abandons her, it’s perfectly understandable, but you can also understand Maren’s pain and fear. It occurs to her that her mother must have been afraid of her and she concludes that her mother never loved, just felt responsible for her. Now, at only sixteen, and she has to continue her life alone.
As she wanders, scraping by on crime and charity, you have to wonder what her life is going to be like. She has never formed a long-lasting relationship with anyone except her mother, and it’s quite possible that she can’t. It’s only when she gets physically and emotionally close to someone that she feels compelled to eat them, so she usually stays away from people – especially men – for their own safety.
On the road, however, she meets two other cannibals. The first is Sully, a strange old man who apparently only eats people who have already died, and keeps the hair of his victims in a neverending braid. Sully is pretty creepy, but Maren is inclined to trust him because he is the first cannibal she meets, he’s kind to her, and teaches her a little about what she is.
Then there’s Lee, a 19-year-old cannibal who’s been on the road since his tendencies forced him to leave home. Lee is a lifesaver for Maren. Besides literally saving her life a few times, he becomes her first real friend. In another YA novel, you would expect this to develop into a romance, especially since Lee and Maren are travelling together and often share the same bed, but they’re both very careful around each other. They’re serial killers who don’t want to jeopardise their relationship. That said, their connection is a little beacon of light in this otherwise grim tale.
And yeah, I absolutely loved it. I don’t usually care about coming-of-age stories, but this one is very unconventional. I also enjoyed the somewhat paradoxical experience of reading about this truly monstrous person who I never had trouble empathising with.
The book does have some flaws though, and despite the fact that I was willing to overlook them, I think they’re worth discussion. Firstly, there’s the cannibalism itself. It’s not gory – in fact it’s barely described – but it doesn’t work the way you’d expect. When cannibals like Maren devour people, they don’t eat in any normal sense of the word. It’s not a case of them taking one bite after another and getting full. They can consume an entire human body – Bones & All – in only a few minutes, and still be hungry afterwards. They don’t seem to gain any mass from the process, and yet whatever remains of the victim can be stuffed into a small plastic shopping bag. Although the book doesn’t have any overtly speculative elements, there’s definitely something other involved here, so maybe Maren really is a monster from the myth and folklore she studies.
It helps to know this before you start reading, because otherwise certain things can be quite confusing. For example, Maren’s first victim is her babysitter, who she eats when she’s just a baby. I couldn’t imagine how a tiny child could possibly overpower an adult and reduce her to a pile of bloody bones, but that’s what happens. Later, she starts eating children from school, again without any apparent difficulties. I wondered how a young child could hide a body until I realised that there were never any bodies left to hide.
This brings me to a second problem with the book, which is that Maren never gets caught. She kills a string of young boys, and each time her mother gets them the hell out of town and they start up in a new place. It slightly more believable once you understand that there are no bodies so these might be treated as missing persons cases rather than murders, but that’s not enough. Unless Maren drinks all the blood up quite quickly, she’d probably leave enough of a mess to make it clear that she killed her victim. But even if she executes a clean kill every time, her subsequent departure would be highly suspicious. A child disappears, and immediately afterwards, Maren is taken out of school, her mother leaves her job, and they get out of town? You wouldn’t have to be a cop to see a link, and Maren’s mother never changes their names, so they’d be easy to track.
Admittedly, the cops probably couldn’t prove or even guess the truth, but it still feels like the entire issue gets conveniently swept under the rug. And while I like the book enough that it doesn’t bother me, I can’t ignore it completely.
Nevertheless, I had a great time reading this. Maren is a wonderful character, and I was fully invested in her journey.