I picked up a proof copy of Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy at a publishing event earlier in the year. It’s the story of Annabel, a girl who’s died from heart failure brought on by anorexia but who narrates the story from whatever spirit dimension she’s trapped in. Annabel wants to give her family a message: she wants to tell them she was right. They shouldn’t have sent her to hospital, she wasn’t sick, she wouldn’t change a thing about her eating disorder. In order to get her message through, Annabel has to perform a Good Deed – she has to earn her message. Her Boss (not God – God is carefully sidelined which is very sensible because this is not about a religious afterlife) assigns her to look after Julia, a living, breathing girl, who appears (on the surface) to have everything going for her except one thing: she’s overweight.
Annabel is almost hysterical at the irony of the situation. But she quickly realises that here is the perfect subject for her to work with. After all, she has spent years calorie-counting and weighing, years of perfecting her tricks to avoid hunger, convince other people she’s eating when she’s not, developing a friendship with another anorexic girl. Here’s another person she can help! Julia has a crush on Gavin, but Annabel is convinced that if only Julia were thin, she could win the boy and then Annabel will get her message to her family!
This is a very cleverly crafted book. A spirit is the perfect omniscient narrator, head-hopping into the other characters Julia meets so that she can see how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. Annabel’s personality comes through loud and clear but not to the detriment of the people she is commenting on. She is both determined and deluded: if you were thinking this were a pro-anorexia story, you couldn’t be more wrong. There is no glamour here: despite Annabel’s conviction that she was fully in control at all times and not ‘ill’, the reader can see clearly that this wasn’t the case. Little mentions of how shaky Annabel’s handwriting was because she was cold and tired all the time; the games she would play with her therapist; the disconnection she felt with her boyfriend and their sexual relationship – all point to the ugly side effects of anorexia. Annabel is also curiously devoid of affection for most people which makes her an unsentimental narrator, commenting on people’s emotions without necessarily engaging with them – at least to start with.
It is Julia herself who the reader is rooting for though. Clever, hard-working, responsible Julia, who is promoted to editor of the highly-regarded school newspaper but finds it more of a challenge than she anticipated. Julia who reaches for crisp packet after crisp packet, who has suddenly gained a huge amount of weight in a year (though Claire Hennessy carefully avoids any mention of numbers, which is a very wise decision) – and why is that? How has she become so obsessed about managing things on her own: why does she feel if she asks for help she will be weak?
Gavin too is a lovely creation. One of the ‘nice’ boys, he is genuinely attracted to Julia but can’t stop fooling around with other girls just because they’re there. Julia is no fool – I loved her concept of being a ‘sorbet girl’: a palate cleanser in between courses of other, more important girls – but Gavin and she have a kind of magic that they both recognise and don’t know how to handle. It’s a lovely, real, painful relationship with many conversations and misunderstandings that rang very true.
Nothing Tastes As Good is a gripping, painful and funny and real story about teens and their battles – with themselves as well as with each other. It reminded me of Sheena Wilkinson’s Still Falling, which I raved about last year. Every school library should have a copy because the overall message is about positive body image, communication, allowing people in, and being honest with yourself. Published by Hot Key, it’s available now.