*This review will contain spoilers!*
'Boys don't go for fat girls. They talk bout wanting 'real women', but what they mean is big tits. Not thighs, not bellies, not fat bums. They want skin and bone.'
'Don't call me a guardian angel. No wings, no heavenly music, no fluffy white clouds here - just me and the Boss (not God, don't go getting any ideas there) and an assignment. My first. Hopefully my only.'Annabel is instantly grating. Her personality is so abrasive - her first sentence being a command is so confrontational - and it instantly got my back up.
Annabel McCormack is dead.
She's been dead for three weeks, since her heart gave up on her. Annabel was an anorexic, pushing her body to the limits with her quest to control her eating and become as thin as physically possible.
When she dies Annabel discovers there is such a thing as the other side, but it's not as simple and relaxing as you might expect. She's assigned as a spirit guide, required to assist a soul in need before she is allowed to send a message from beyond the grave to her family. Annabel wants to write to her little sister Imogen, berating her for telling their parents that she was sick. Annabel blames Imogen and their parents for her death: she believes she had everything under control, and it was the sugar water forced into her body that caused her heart to stop.
The catch? Annabel's assigned as spirit guide to Julia, a girl she used to go to school with. Julia, who is overweight - bordering on obese - and constantly overeats, thinking nothing of eating an entire multipack of crisps or bar after bar of chocolate.
'If I'm supposed to save her from obesity, this is really not funny.'Annabel watches Julia gorging herself, and she feels physically sick - or she would, if she still had a body. She's angry that she has to help this girl who has no self-control, and uses all of her force to get into Julia's head, telling her how fat, disgusting and worthless she is.
As Annabel's voice takes hold, Julia starts to over-exercise and starve herself. She constantly berates herself for not losing weight fast enough, and starts to obsess over Annabel - the only super thin girl she's known in real life, rock solid proof that skinny doesn't always mean photoshopped.
But when Annabel discovers the reason for Julia's overeating, she starts to doubt herself. There's a lot more at play than just lack of control, and Julia doesn't need to diet - she needs to talk to someone.
Will it be too late for Annabel to save Julia, or will she redeem herself?
This is a very difficult read.
My relationship with food has been difficult for a few years now, and the first half of this book brought it all roaring back to me: the self-hatred, the determination, the belief that everything would be fine if I could just shed a few more pounds. I could see myself in both Julia and Annabel, struggling to fit into my favourite pair of jeans, sneering with disgust at the overweight world surrounding me. It was jarring, to be able to relate so completely with two characters that are polar opposites.
You need to read this book in one sitting, because if you don't Annabel will get into your head. She's vitriolic, invasive and demeaning, and if you dwell on her words you will find yourself retreating into yourself. But towards the end of the novel Annabel's viewpoint shifts dramatically, and she can understand and accept that yes, she was ill. It's the first time she's able to view anorexia as the disease that it is, and it's a tear-jerker: as soon as she fully comprehends what she was doing to her body, she just wants to go back and have another chance.
It's reminiscent of the interviews with people who've attempted suicide by jumping off of bridges, and the fact that they often regret their decision in midair. It's harrowing to read Annabel rediscover her interest in life and its potential so soon after her demise.
You need to read this book in its entirety. It might be difficult, but the ending is one of redemption, acceptance and closure, and if you struggle through the first half of the novel you're definitely repaid by the end. I know some people have said it's too difficult, but it'll be a lot less effective if you abandon it halfway through - particularly if you're leaving it because you relate to it, because the ending is inspirational. Whether you struggle with eating, depression, or any of the vast number of mental health issues linked to suicide and depression, this book is thought-provoking and it's certainly convinced me that I would have regretted any action that I couldn't then take back.
Claire Hennessy is a wonderful author. As soon as I heard about 'Nothing Tastes As Good' I pre-ordered it, and I've been putting it off for the last few months because I knew it was going to hit me hard. I was shaken after reading 'Wintergirls' by Laurie Halse Anderson, but it helped me shift my perspective and got me back on the road to recovery, and I feel as though this story is doing the same thing.
I was grateful that no specifics were included, as it's always tricky: if you call Julia obese and then state a certain weight, it'll resonate in a horrific way with any readers who are around that number. The same with Annabel's lower weight: it could always act as thinspo. Describing the girls rather than factually stating any amount was brilliant.
I was also very happy with the inclusion of an eating disorder without a solid cause. Annabel has anorexia, but she hasn't been abused or experienced a traumatic incident in her past. This is the cause of Julia's disordered eating, and the contrast between the two of them offers representation of a wide range of different backgrounds of sufferers, which is necessary.
I had to read 'Nothing Tastes As Good' because it was the pick for this month's #SundayYA book club, and I'm really grateful that it was chosen. If you've also read this book, feel free to join in with the chat discussing it from 6pm on Sunday!