REVIEW: The Thick and the Lean by Chana Porter

Chana Porter’s The Thick and the Lean is one of those rare stories that continue living in your brain rent-free long after the last page. This is slow, delicious literary SFF, a story about a looming presence and social pressure. If you’re looking for epic events, battles or action, this is not the book for you.   To use the book’s food focus, this is small plate haute cuisine. You need to be in the mood for it, not looking for a quick burger fix. That said, The Thick and the Lean is utterly delicious, a story to savour.

Cover of The Thick and the LeanBeatrice is obsessed with food. It’s the thing she dreams about – but she has been raised in Seagate, a cult-like community where food has mostly been replaced by supplements. To be seen eating is shameful. Reiko is a poor university student, set to make her own future. Soon, her scholarship is taken away, however, leaving her unable to stay in school without going into ruinous debt. Both women need to figure out how to move forward in life, how to untangle their own desires from social customs. A shared story weaves through the book, providing touching points for the two plotlines.

The most grimdark character in the story is society at large. The characters themselves are complex and multi-layered, of course, but the looming sense of unease, of struggling against perceived boundaries is what makes The Thick and the Lean. In many ways, it doesn’t matter who the story is about specifically, it matters far more to see these characters as examples of the society they move in. The narration, with its poetic prose, helps create that sense of distance, following Beatrice and Reiko closely without ever really taking us into their minds. In that sense, The Thick and the Lean is closer to literary fiction than what we tend to expect of genre fiction.

Within a few pages I found myself fascinated by the story, the challenges the characters face – and the relationship they have to food. For me, as someone who has a complicated relationship with food due to chronic illness affected by it, it rang true in so many ways. Who are we without food, who does eating make us? The Thick and the Lean doesn’t provide the reader with easy answers. Rather, it poses questions, questions that make us ponder who we are and how we interact with the world. There is a clear anti-capitalist sentiment to The Thick and the Lean – I particularly liked how it homed in on consumer culture and voyeurism. Oh, and its set in a queernormative world, using acceptance of queerness as a means to show other inequalities in society.

The contrasting perspectives of Beatrice and Reiko helped show the range of issues their society faces, highlighting how being yourself is a much harder road than following along the masses. Through religion, cult-like devotion to corporations, expectations of sexual submission for women, along with the core themes of food, eating and shame, The Thick and the Lean makes a powerful statement that it is worth it to stand up for yourself and what you believe. Tender and brutal at the same time, I am certain I’ll keep thinking about this for a long time.

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.