Carnivores beware. Human and animal misery are evoked in unsparing detail in a dark saga of ruinous husbandry practices.
This first novel to appear in English from a prizewinning French author is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Brilliantly, lyrically descriptive whether evoking the natural world or a decaying farmstead, the book traces the terrible evolution of rural ways of life into cruelty and abuse via the history of one unhappy family. Opening in 1898, it evokes peasant existence in Gascony from the perspective of a harshly devout mother, a loving but ill father, and their daughter, Éléonore. Co-existing alongside their livestock, the trio endures a miserable cycle of poverty and endless labor. Marcel, a cousin, arrives to help with the work until World War I intervenes; Marcel survives but at the price of half his face and one eye. In spite of this, Éléonore loves him, marries him, and bears his son, Henri. Swooping forward to 1981, the smallholding has enlarged into a pig production unit, a place of pain and torment. The family has grown via Henri’s two sons to include a manic depressive mother, a mute grandson, alcoholism, sickness, and despair of multiple kinds. Meanwhile, outside, a herd of pigs is raised in grotesque, appalling conditions. Del Amo spares no details—indeed overloads the brutish accumulation—in this portrait of filth, cruelty, and moral decline. The people suffer, but the animals suffer more, whether in war- or peacetime. Overmedicated, inbred, and turned into industrial units, the pigs produce contaminated waste that fertilizes the fields that grow the grain they eat, creating a virtuous/vicious cycle of excrement and meat. The piggery has become a cradle of barbarism, and it isn’t going to end well.
Tortured beasts are tended by soul-destroyed keepers in an unstinting portrait of all that’s wrong with modern food production.