A Carnivore’s Inquiry by Sabina Murray

“This is what exploration had opened up the door to. Not only widespread slaughter, but the necessary accompaniment of gorging.”

Unapologetically solipsistic and deeply manipulative, Katherine, the central character of A Carnivore’s Inquiry, makes for an awful human being and a deeply entertaining narrator. A predecessor to Ottessa Moshfegh and Mona Awad’s protagonists, and many of the young women from the ‘She’s Not Feeling Good at All’ subgenre, Katherine is a ceaselessly sardonic and relentlessly remorseless narrator with a predilection for histories and representations of cannibalism.

“I was one of those people who made up for what she lacked in talent with her father’s money.”

Katherine is 23 and has arrived in New York after an extended trip to Italy. She is young, attractive, and from wealth. However, she has no interest in reconnecting with her father, a man she thinks rarely of, and never with any particular fondness. Her mother has been in and out of institutions all her life, and glimpses into Katherine’s childhood reveal just how unstable she was. But Katherine is not prone to melancholy, or at least, if she thinks of the past, it is not her past that she longs or feels for, rather, she is fascinated by tales and accounts of cannibals, cannibalism itself, and nurtures a troublesome, perverse even, admiration for colonialist and their violence and usurpation against native communities. She’s often awed by accounts of violence, of madness, and of death, recounting and reimagining many of these episodes, often adopting the point of view of the person who inflicted violence upon others, or went mad, or was put in a situation where cannibalism was the only means of survival.

“I find it hard to feel bad for Hansel. It’s the witch I feel for.”

Katherine sets her sights on an older man, a fairly well-off writer Boris. Her momentary interest in Boris seems a consequence of boredom and a monetary desire. Soon she grows tired of Boris, a rather pathetic yet nasty person, who makes the mistake of thinking himself cleverer than her. Katherine convinces him to buy a house in rural Maine, a town that happens to have a killer on a loose. Far from bothered by this, Katherine seems comforted by the idea of this killer. Eventually, she finds herself travelling to Mexico City, and later returning to New York where she comes across some unwelcome familiar faces.
As her restlessness sees her hitting the road, she forms unlikely friendships with random men she meets on her travels. All the while, bodies keep piling up wherever she goes.

“[I]n our culture there was a weird enthusiasm for cannibalism. Cannibalism was a big thrill as long as we weren’t doing it.”

While we know from the start that something is off about Katherine, we don’t really know just how unreliable a narrator she is. She often says and does exactly what she wants when she wants, has no trouble striking up conversations with strangers and is not put off by people not liking her. Her disregard for social niceties and norms makes her a character that is always able to surprise you. Her blithe responses to the odd, occasionally disturbing, circumstances she finds herself in are pure gold. Yet, despite knowing and being confronted with her strangeness, she retains a hypotonic quality. Her ambiguous nature drew me in, as I found myself eager to learn what was truly going on. Who is responsible for these deaths? Why is Katherine obsessed with cannibalism? What is at the root of her ennui?

“After a few hurdles, my life would achieve a stunning, appealing normalcy.”

Adroit, dark, and wickedly funny, A Carnivore’s Inquiry is a riveting tale. The plot, however meandering, reflects Katherine’s restlessness. Aloof, duplicitous, and hungry for experience Katherine uses those around her as she pleases, both for materialistic gain and to pass away time. The novel’s historical and artistic discourses brought to mind the work of María Gainza, as here too we are given in-depth insights into art pieces and historical figures. I found A Carnivore’s Inquiry‘s exploration of taboos, cannibalism, and violence to be sharp and subversive. I appreciated how Sabina Murray upends traditional power dynamics and challenges notions of normalcy and likeability. Her commentary on consumerism, colonialism, power structures, the ‘elite’, NY’s art and literary scene, femininity, and privilege were sly and thrilling.

“The needs of appetite justified everything.”

A Carnivore’s Inquiry makes for a unique read, a rare treat. Not only is A Carnivore’s Inquiry rich thematically but stylistically. Murray constantly keeps her readers on their toes as she shifts from genres (gothic, thriller, satire) and tones (playful, grotesque, introspective). Katherine’s voice is the book’s strength, as readers are bound to find her both fascinating and abhorrent. Her interactions are always interesting, as they often veer into the realms of the absurd (more than once david lynch came to mind).

“I seem to have touched a nerve,” said Ann.
“Thank God for that,” I said. “I was beginning to wonder if I was still alive.”

My only quibble really is in regards to the Italian (chingiale should be cinghiale, seiscento should be seicento, and then gittoni should have been gettoni). And yeah that Silvano was utterly ridiculous (of course, he is a fascist) but he ended up adding to the novel’s vibe of surreality.

I think this would definitely appeal to fans of Moshfegh, Awad, and Danzy Senna as well as readers who are on the lookout for novels exploring ‘The Female Malaise’ or that centre on alienated & alienating young women.

Clever, enigmatic, and atmospheric, A Carnivore’s Inquiry is a novel that I look forward to rereading. I liked this so much that I am even planning on revisiting The Human Zoo, also by Murray, which I read with little fanfare last year (hopefully this time around it will win me over).

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
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