Book Review: Eating Sarah, Jaret Martens (2014)

November 21st, 2014 12:22 pm by Kelly Garbato

Not My Cuppa Grey Matter

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Also, there are some clearly marked spoilers towards the end of this review.)

Ever since she was a kid, all Sarah wanted to do was participate in the Hunt. Every month, guided by the light of the moon, the adults of their forest colony raid the nearby city in search of food: human captives to be harvested and consumed. But food has been harder and harder to come by, causing Robert – the leader of the colony – to unexpectedly lower the required age of participation from nineteen to seventeen. And, just like that, Sarah is thrust into the Hunt two years ahead of schedule.

Her excitement turns to horror, however, as the forest folk run into what quickly becomes a massacre. Sarah manages to escape with her life, but just barely. She returns to chaos in the colony; during the Hunt, someone murdered Robert, branding his flesh with a bite mark calling card. Robert is only the first of many murders, as more and more of the cannibals turn up dead. When an entire town embraces murder as a way of life, identifying one killer among many is a challenging task indeed.

In Robert’s absence, Sarah’s father Mark – previously a council member – assumes control of the colony. Among his and her mother Serena’s first tasks is to ban Sarah from future hunts, sentencing her instead to a lifetime of labor in the slaughter shack. Here she is to feed, bath, control, harvest, and eventually kill the human captives. Her budding friendship with a city dweller named Troy – one of the few captured during her first and only Hunt – causes Sarah to question her most deeply-held values. With things becoming increasingly dangerous for her at home, Sarah contemplates escape: with Troy; her friends Darren and Amy; and her older brother Aiden and his traveling companions the Pilgrims.

I eagerly awaited the release of Eating Sarah, but after months of metaphorical salivating in anticipation, ultimately it left me underwhelmed. It’s the latest in a growing pile of books, all with glowing reviews, that I expected to love but didn’t. (See also: The Night of Elisa; The Sunken; Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter.) I fear that if this keeps up much longer, I’ll officially be stuck in a book rut.

Both the writing and editing could use some polishing. Let’s start with the copy editing. I spotted a fair number of errors, 85% of which were lonely, half-pairs of quotation marks. On the other end of the spectrum are extra quotation marks: in a few cases, when a character’s dialogue is quoted across multiple paragraphs, each paragraph has both opening and closing quotation marks, which makes it difficult to follow the conversation. There are also several instances where the author uses the wrong word (homonym), e.g., “Beside the benches were all manors of sharp tools”; “fire reigned down,” as well as incorrect tenses. Last but not least are simple copy and paste type mistakes, such as the accidental repetition of a word or phrase (“when I saw when I saw”). Usually I’m pretty forgiving of a few mistakes, but these were numerous enough that they quickly became distracting.

The writing is sometimes confusing as well; on several occasions, I found myself flipping back and forth between chapters, trying to figure out what I had missed. Jake’s mother Cara is a prime example of this. When Robert announces the age change for the Hunt, Cara becomes hysterical and eventually collapses, dead – the victim of a mysterious illness which manifests in nervous ticks that grow increasingly worse over time. (Sarah mentions, almost as an aside, that these deaths crop up from time to time – but this just proves to be one of many subplots that’s never pursued.)

Later on, Cara resurfaces (as if by magic! or mad science!) when the newly self-appointed leader Mark calls a meeting to discuss the future of the Hunts:

“Future Hunts? After what happened to my Jake?” the hysterical woman from the gathering called out. She had risen in anger, her face bright red.

Jake pulled on her shirt, urging her to sit down. “I’m fine, mom. Please, stop.”

A sharp look from my father set her back in her seat. There was a panicked look in her eyes that made me question just what had happened to her when she was escorted from the clearing.

Seeing as she was dead when they “escorted” her out (“the minutes it took for Cara to die were endless”), my vote’s on reanimation. Zombie cannibals! Throw in some space travel and you’ve hit the trifecta. (Zombie cannibals FROM OUTER SPACE!)

(I also considered the possibility that Jake had two moms, which would be awesome and only add to my enjoyment of the book. But seeing as Cara is the only hysterical woman removed from the clearing, I think moms number one and two are one and the same.)

* begin spoiler alert! *

On a more macro level, I just didn’t find the story all that compelling. In her quest to find the truth – chief of which is the genesis of the colony’s cannibalistic ways – Sarah uncovers layer upon layer of lies…many of them perpetuated by a love-sick Darren, in a weak attempt to keep Sarah by his side. This felt rather feeble, especially given the gravity of the main plot. After awhile I had trouble keeping track of the rumors and lies, let alone caring which was factually correct. The reveal at the end felt anticlimactic at best.

Also, Sarah’s not a very likeable person (or narrator). She’s mopey, bitter, selfish, and narcissistic – all of which she readily admits. After her best friend Terra’s father dies, all she can do is complain at her bad luck at being stuck in the slaughter shack. (Boo hoo!) Then Terra is murdered, leaving her mother catatonic with depression and Ginny suicidal. Sarah makes a promise to her dead friend that she’ll be there for Ginny…and then isn’t. Even as her colony implodes all around her, all Sarah cares about is herself. Sure, she pays lip service to helping others, but rarely does she follow through with action. She even allows her older brother to take the fall (read: the death penalty) for her. She’s like the worst stereotype of the self-centered teenager.

As a vegan, I had hoped that the cannibalism plot would prove a means of exploring our troubled relationship with nonhuman animals: we claim to be a nation of animal lovers, yet we consume them by the billions. Hoped, but not expected – I know I’m a member of the minority here. I at least expected some sort of social commentary, even if I disagreed with the moral of it.

And in some (mostly superficial) ways, Eating Sarah does draw parallels between cannibalism and animal agriculture. When Sarah first enters the slaughter shack, she unconsciously employs a number of defense mechanisms to distance herself from her human captives. They aren’t people, but “monsters.” (There’s a religious element to the cannibalism; the city dwellers don’t worship their goddess Aurora, so it’s okay to murder and eat them.) Sarah dehumanizes and then objectifies them; sawing off a leg or arm is no different than harvesting berries. (Except that berries don’t scream in pain or beg for their lives.) The tongues of captives are routinely removed so that they cannot communicate; by robbing them of their voices, Sarah robs them of their humanity as well. The conditions in the shack are filthy and grim; the captives live on/suspended over floors caked with their own feces and blood, much like nonhumans on modern factory farms.

The sustainability of a meat-based diet is called into question as well. Instead of slaughtering the captives immediately and preserving the meat (as hunters of nonhuman animals do), they’re kept alive, imprisoned, and gradually “harvested”: a foot here, an arm there. Like meat cows or broiler chickens, but possibly even crueler – if you can imagine that. (Nonhuman animals are routinely mutilated, but as a matter of convenience vs. food; e.g., chickens kept in close confinement are “debeaked” to prevent them from attacking themselves or others.) Since food (both plant- and human-based) is already scarce, it’s silly to feed some of it to your other food. Raising animals (human or non) for food is an inefficient use of resources, which Sarah realizes on day one of her stint in the shack.

That said, the only time nonhuman animals merit a mention is when the Pilgrims extoll the virtues of animal meat, thus perpetuating speciesism and the human/animal divide. The question of why the colonists consume human meat in lieu of animal meat is never answered, at least not directly, which seems rather odd.

The stated justifications for cannibalism run the gamut.

Rumor #1: Food is scarce since the war wiped out most of humanity; consuming other humans is the only way we can survive. Given the way the colony “harvests” this food – sloppily and inefficiently – this excuse just doesn’t compute.

Rumor #2: Nuclear fallout from the war contaminated the soil, thus making all plant-based food (save for that raised in dirt laced with human fertilizer) inedible. Again, this justifies cannibalism, just not the way the colony practices it. Why waste precious plant-based food on captives?

Rumor #3: We eat people because they taste good. Though this turns out to be the city folks’ justification for (also) practicing cannibalism, it seems applicable to Sarah’s people as well. Because this is the truth – or at least the truth as we come to understand it; the seeming dénouement of Eating Sarah – in the end the story is one about cannibalism for cannibalism’s sake. There doesn’t seem to be a moral or even a point to the story, or at least not one that I can glean. (People are awful?)

Which is fine – I like gross-out horror stories as much as the next girl – but aside from a few delightfully icky feast and slaughter shack scenes, Eating Sarah didn’t really scare me either.

I could go on and on – pointing to gender equity as the beginning of the end of civilization; the use of “bitch” as a slur; all the weird conspiracies, spying, and counter-spying that proved more confusing than anything – but yeah. The unfulfilled potential is strong with this one. Pass the gravy and potatoes, I need to eat my feelings like now.

2.5 stars, rounded down to 2 where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: None that I recall.

Animal-friendly elements: See review.


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