With her enhanced mirror neuron pathways making her empathic, with her reflective skin that lets everyone project what they want to see, everyone she’s ever met must have left their trace in her very cells. All these traces have become the layers of who Maya is. Peel the layers off an onion, and at the heart of an onion … At the heart of an onion there’s nothing left but a sharp living smell. And the person who’s peeled away an onion is left with tears stinging their eyes and a pile of dead layers of skin. [loc. 2455]
Amber and Maya live a privileged life in the city of Paradon, where it’s eternally summer, until their parents decide that it’s time they were separated, time they went out to work. Unable to face the thought of separation, the girls run away to the coast. They find a cottage, apparently deserted, in the village of Seachant. Every morning, there is an offering of produce – dried fruit, honey, flour, spices, flowers – on the doorstep. All the clothes in the wardrobe are black, and the previous occupant has not taken her hairbrush with her.
In Seachant, it’s ten-year-old Kip’s turn to do the fair – the daily delivery of the village’s offerings to Old Kelp, in exchange for which they receive honeycakes, one per villager. Old Kelp is rumoured to be a witch: you mustn’t peer in through the windows, or speak about anything you’ve seen at the cottage, or you will be cursed.
Amber falls easily into this new life. She follows the guidance of a cookbook left behind by the cottage’s previous inhabitant. Amber notes, without melodrama, that the utensils in the kitchen are made from human bone, and that the recipes are as much about emotion as nutrition (“remember that the cooking of a Nameless Pie may result in something or someone being named, and their identity brought to the fore …Cramp the edges with the prongs of a fork, constrict the surface with milk, and restrict with caster sugar.” [loc. 4294]) Maya, though, finds life outside the city much harder. She is a ‘formwanderer’, a ‘mirror of want’: engineered to reflect (literally and metaphorically) the desires of anyone she meets. Here in Old Kelp’s cottage, she has only Amber’s wants to mirror, and Amber doesn’t seem to want Maya at all any more.
And there’s Dead Red in the shed …
Cooking with Bones is a complex and fascinating novel, though on reflection I suspect it could have been blended a bit better, or baked a little longer: it feels as though there are too many ingredients. There is Kip’s exclusion by the other children, Amber’s joy in the increasing weight and softness of her body, and Maya’s bleak, lyrical confusion. (“All of the stars are alive. There are smells that are the clang of great bells, and music made from dark blue. There are clouds of echo-pulses and the tastes of winter frost.” [loc. 4811]) There is the mystery of a dead woman in a crimson dress whose disappearance has gone unnoticed. There are graves among the whispering fir trees behind the house, rumours of an epidemic that hit the countryside much harder than the city, fragments of future history that explain Seachant’s isolation, stories about the policeman who came once…
I’d have liked fewer plot threads and more examination of the future in which Cooking with Bones is set. Richards barely acknowledges the dangers of creating a person who has to be what each person, meeting her, really wants. There’s little, once the sisters have left Paradon, about the sterile, glossy city life or how it meshes with the country around it. (The passage from Paradon-summer to the world’s winter is a powerful image: I want more.) In some ways Seachant feels post-apocalyptic: in others, it could be a remote contemporary seaside town, complete with holiday cottages and small-town scandals and a plethora of craft shops.
But I liked Cooking with Bones a great deal: for all its flaws, it is beautiful, and poetic, and wise. Maya the mirror, paradoxically, is a truly original character, prone to unexpected observations and insightful aphorisms: perhaps this book is simply about her learning to be herself for the first time. If so, it’s about Amber learning to do the same, and Kip, and even some of the villagers.
… hope. It’s not found in a place, or in anyone else. It isn’t anything we can imagine or design. It’s found when there are no mirrors reflecting what we believe we want to see. [loc. 4813]