^ This has to be one of the longest blog post titles I’ve written in years.
Claire Hennessy is an Irish author who’s been on my radar since I was quite young. Roughly the same age as my older sister, Hennessy’s first books were written and published before she left school (the first, I believe, was written when she was still in primary school!), meaning that they were published before I left school, too. I hadn’t read any of her stuff in years, but saw last year that she had been picked up by Hot Key books to make her UK debut. That came in the form of this – Nothing Tastes As Good.
Don’t call her a guardian angel. Annabel is dead – but she hasn’t completely gone away. Annabel immediately understands why her first assignment as a ghostly helper is to her old classmate: Julia is fat. And being fat makes you unhappy. Simple, right?
As Annabel shadows Julia’s life in the pressured final year of school, Julia gradually lets Annabel’s voice in, guiding her thoughts towards her body, food and control.
But nothing is as simple as it first seems. Spending time in Julia’s head seems to be having its own effect on Annabel . . . And she knows that once the voices take hold, it’s hard to ignore them.
I had a lot of thoughts about this book – I thought the structure was pretty interesting. The idea of an afterlife where you act as a spiritual guide to troubled people is an interesting one – a little bit like that tv show Teen Angel which used to be on the Disney Channel. After messing up your own life, you get the chance to help someone with their life. Except, of course, Teen Angel was mostly about Marty messing up his friend’s life, whereas Annabel doesn’t know Julia, and is trying to help her in order to get a chance at redemption.
The premise of the book was good. The topic was good. It tackled eating disorders from an unswervingly honest perspective – they can, and do, kill, and have that insidious effect of making the sufferer feel like they’re not actually unwell, but rather that everyone trying to help them is wrong.
NTAG was, I felt, a really good book, but not a brilliant book. It tackled tough issues with an unflinching, honest approach, and came from a grounded feminist perspective. I really liked Julia and her driven, obsessive nature, her struggles with the pressures of school and her extracurriculars, and the details which came out slowly over the course of the book about her life before Annabel appeared. I also liked Annabel and her attitude, her stubborn insistence that the way to help Julia was to make her thin.
And yet. There was something missing, for me, from this book. It was missing something like the punch which underlines every word you read in Asking For It, or the unsettling feeling which lingered about me after I finished reading Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Ansdersen. It felt, to me, from the first page, that this was a redemption story. I knew from the moment we met Annabel that she would slowly realise over the course of the book that she was sick, and she needed to accept that, and it resulted in her death, and Julia was just a background story to help Annabel come to this realisation. By the end of the book, everything felt like it had been wrapped up neatly with a little bow, and happily ever afters would ensue. Except, of course, that Annabel was still dead, but even that felt a little unreal.
I don’t know quite why I felt like the book missed that impact factor. On the surface, it should have had it. The stark reality which hits you from the first page, that Annabel died from her disordered eating, should have been enough to make this an important book in the same way I think that Asking For It is important, and Wintergirls is important – even the way I think All The Rage by Courtney Summers and Speak, also by Laurie Halse Anderson, are important. I don’t know what it was. Perhaps it’s that eating disorders have never been a topic that resonates with me the way that Asking For It and All the Rage did.
That said, though, NTAG is still a very good book. It’s strongly drawn and the characters leap off the page. There was a lot that I identified with, and I really enjoy reading books which are set in Ireland and written by Irish authors. This is a book which will resonate with many, and it’s easy to read, engaging, and even sometimes fun. It’s a good book, it really is. It’s just not quite up there as a brilliant book.