Questionable Taste: Analyzing The Cannibal Romance

Last week, Ruthie Knox on Wonk-o-Mance wrote about a Regency romance called Beau Crusoe, which featured—wait for it!—a cannibal hero. I could not hit the buy button fast enough.

The reviews across the web are mixed, but count me as one of those who fell completely in love with our hero and this love story. Partly it's just that James himself is adorable, and lonely, and (as Ms. Knox aptly pointed out), legitimately angsty about having eaten other human beings. None of your one woman was mean therefore all women are bitches whinging here. No, this is I had to eat people once—people whose names I knew—and now I have serious issues with food and may in fact be going mad.

Combine those issues with a heart of gold and genuine wit and no wonder I was rooting for this guy.

But that's not what I want to talk about today.

No, what I want to get into, a la the marvelous Teach Me Tonight, is how effectively this book used imagery and structure.

And just in case lit-crit is not precisely your thing, I've punctuated my analysis with cannibal-appropriate accessories for happy shopping.

Needless to say, thar be spoilers ahead. Also trigger warnings for violence, slut-shaming, and general gruesomeness.

It's a really great romance, I swear.

Eat Your Heart Out

The big thing you have to do with a cannibal romance hero, of course, is to re-civilize him. James is given three tasks upon his arrival in London: to get rid of the toucans living in our heroine's father's foyer, to "do something" about our heroine's embittered sister Loisa, and to marry our heroine, the domestically named Susannah Park, widow and mother of adorable Plot Moppet Noah. These tasks, in order, are the foundation of James' reentry into the social world:

  • Getting rid of the filthy, tropical toucans is a repudiation of his filthy, tropical past.
  • "Doing something"—which turns out to be matchmaking—for Loisa is the reordering of disorder in the family.
  • Marrying Susannah Park reintegrates our hero fully with society (in the form of a family that includes the world's only legitimately adorable Plot Moppet—seriously, little Noah is a doll).

Throughout Beau Crusoe, you have characters on the side of wildness (Lord Watchmere, Timothy Rowe) and on the side of civilization (Sir Percival Pettibone and the sharp-tongued tailor). Some characters, notably Susannah and James, have aspects of both. It's not a simple good/bad binary, either—Sir Percival's characterization in particular reveals some of civilization's most glaring weaknesses. But the one thing that civilization has going for it is that it is full of people. Wildness is lonely, and hungry, and that combination drives men mad.

James alternately fears isolation and takes refuge in it. After five years of being a hermit, loneliness is at least familiar. But isolation also leave James vulnerable to the terrible guilt and horror of his past.

The other big issue for a cannibal hero is: appetite. Food imagery is all over this book, and actual food is vital in both the sense of significant and in the sense of life-preserving. The hunger for flesh as food becomes entwined with both sexual hunger and the hunger for human company—a pretty fascinating trifecta for an otherwise light narrative. Just as there are three tasks, there are three characters who represent these hungers and their dangers.

And now I have to talk about Lady Audley.

Cover shot of a hardback book with an anatomical illustration of a human being, showing veins and arteries and bones with certain annotations.

Lady Audley is our villainess, and our most disappointing character. She's a constant nymphomaniac whose only personality traits are sexual insatiability and a misplaced vindictiveness now that James is resisting her advances. There's a "sex is gross and dirty," slut-shaming tone to Lady Audley's scenes in the book, but the interesting thing about her is that she is entirely anti-food. She makes malicious cracks about Susannah's weight, and—in a scene that's arguably more shocking than any of the cannibalism parts—she grabs our hero's hand and uses it to bring herself to orgasm beneath the dinner table in the middle of a meal. She embodies sexual appetite: "If there was a position known to Venus that they did not try, he couldn't have named it." (Kindle location 3496)

Lady Audley is a maneater, but carpenter's mate Timothy Rowe is an actual eater of men. Like James, Timothy Rowe was forced into cannibalism to survive starvation; unlike James, Timothy Rowe got into it:

James and Walter Shepherd vowed not to eat any more, but Rowe could not be restrained. Over the next few days, they watched in stupefaction as the carpenter's mate consumed the foretopman down to his toenails. James tried to throw the disgusting carcass overboard, but Rowe only snarled at him like a feral dog and hugged the grisly remains. (Kindle location 3063)

James is haunted by Timothy Rowe, the "ghoul" who appears most frequently by James' bed at night, offering a mangled arm or leg in case our hero wants a snack. Tim is not a flashback, nor precisely a hallucination: he appears in James' POV as any other character, coming and going as he pleases, listening (though never speaking), with a mind and agenda of his own. The effect is plain and frank and thoroughly, deliciously creepy.

At the end of the novel, we learn precisely how Rowe died, and we find that James' fear is not only that he will become uncontrollably voracious, but also that he himself will be eaten as a meal by some ruthless predator. (Spoiler: land crabs. Terrifying, terrifying land crabs.) Barbaric eating sustained Tim Rowe, then destroyed him, and now feeds his memory in James' mind.

Green leaf holding a silver bracelet, stamped with the words 'I WILL EAT YOU ALIVE,' for which proceeds are (rather inappropriately) offered to juvenile diabetes.

Our third character, who personifies the extreme hunger for human society, is more subtle than Timothy Rowe or Lady Audley. (It would be difficult to be less subtle than Lady Audley.) Sir Percival Pettibone would be "chaotic neutral" on anyone's character alignment sheet. He's foppish and fashion-obsessed, frivolous and hugely privileged. He's also expansive and kind and generous, when he realizes it's needed. But he exemplifies a class of people that takes everything from others and gives back virtually nothing. James compares Redfern's eternally unpaid bills with the anger that sparked the French Revolution:

Maybe the French revolutionaries were right, James thought. Quite possibly there wasn't a more useless set of people than aristos. He imagined that the road to the Place de la Concorde, with its dripping guillotine, must have been lined with cheerful tailors, seamstresses and housemaids, happily sending their former employers to untidy ruin. Perhaps they had even pushed the tumbrels along, and no wonder. (Kindle location 1841)

Sir Percival himself may be relatively harmless, but he is still a potential source of ravenous destruction. He can do good things, but they will not outweigh the large imbalances inherent in the system.

Ultimately James rejects all three of these figures and the values they represent. He chooses making love, macaroons, and high-minded science instead of fucking, cannibalism, and lavish society parties. (AKA a typical Saturday night -- hey-oh!)

And there's still plenty more we could talk about in this book: everything about Susannah, Noah's addiction to maccaroons, the two crab pictures and what they mean, the toucans. It's an incredibly rich book, and one I'm going to be thinking about for some time to come.

As a postscript, here is the creepiest love song ever written: "Unworthy of Your Love," by Stephen Sondheim, is a beautiful duet between John Hinkley and Squeaky Fromme. Bonus: John Hinkley is sung by John Barrowman!