I really enjoyed ‘A Tale for the Time Being‘ by Ruth Ozeki which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year. I was lucky enough to get my copy of her debut novel ‘My Year of Meats’ (or ‘My Year of Meat’ in some older editions) signed at the shortlist readings event at the Southbank Centre in October and this week, I finally got around to reading it. Originally published in 1998, it tells the story of Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese-American journalist and documentary film-maker who is producing a series called ‘My American Wife’ for Japanese television. Sponsored by BEEF-EX to promote American beef in Japan, the aim of the programme is to promote a “wholesome” image of America. However, as Jane travels across the United States searching for suitable families to participate in the series, she becomes more alarmed by the methods of meat production and plans to expose them in the programme. Meanwhile, the story also follows Akiko, a Japanese housewife married to Jane’s abusive boss, and eventually their lives converge.
Ozeki herself is a successful documentary film-maker and her account of how television programmes are produced feels authentic and is often very funny. The more satirical elements are very well done and this was probably my favourite aspect of the story. The characters are engaging and well-developed and Ozeki weaves the two narratives together very skilfully.
The story deals with issues similar to those featured in Jonathan Safran Foer’s book ‘Eating Animals‘ which is a non-fictional and very graphic account of the meat industry and factory farming in the United States. Jane’s investigation into the cattle industry’s use of pharmaceuticals in ‘My Year of Meats’ is similarly provocative and becomes increasingly more gruesome as the story progresses. Much like ‘Flight Behaviour‘ by Barbara Kingsolver, Ozeki’s message isn’t always particularly subtle but the themes are dealt with thoughtfully. Moreover, the novel doesn’t have a singular focus on meat and also deals with a whole range of other themes which include Jane and Akiko’s issues with infertility, cultural identity and their relationships with Sloan and John respectively. Consequently, Ozeki avoids treating the meat issue too heavy-handedly and blends these various themes very creatively.
Overall, ‘My Year of Meats’ is a highly original and thought-provoking book. I am now looking forward to reading Ozeki’s second novel ‘All Over Creation’ which is about ec0-activists in Idaho and has been similarly well-received.