Honestly, I’ve never read anything like Bones & All. Camille DeAngelis makes clear from the very beginning that this is not your typical fluffy YA novel — there are real stakes, real consequences to everything that happens. It’s fascinating to watch Maren’s evolution from shy, awkward teenager to self-assured predator, like reading about the humble beginnings of a fairy-tale villain rather than the plucky prince who must vanquish her in order to fulfill his destiny.
So who is Maren Yearly? An introverted sixteen-year-old girl who loves to read books and wants to find her place in the world. Maren’s not concerned with make-up or boys or fitting in with the cool kids; she’s more concerned with survival and how to hide the compulsion in her belly. Maren is an eater: she consumes human flesh, bones and all, except for certain inedible or indigestible parts. Each eater has a particular trigger, and Maren’s is when strong affection is felt toward her, a need or a possessive desire, though not necessarily sexual and not restricted to the opposite sex. Afterward, she throws away what can’t be eaten, keeps a souvenir (usually a book, though sometimes another item), and skips town to start life somewhere new, where no one knows her. Where no one could possibly suspect the thing she’s done.
Bones & All begins with the story of Maren’s first meal as an eater — her babysitter — then moves to the day after Maren Yearly’s sixteenth birthday. She wakes to discover that her mother has fled town, leaving only an envelope with some money, Maren’s birth certificate, and a note informing Maren that her mother has given up. After nearly two decades of unpredictability, of never knowing whether Maren’s compulsion will manifest itself and necessitate a late-night emergency relocation, Janelle Yearly has reached her breaking point. With no direction other than her father Frank’s birthplace, Maren strikes out on her own, meeting and befriending other eaters, Lee and Sully, while learning about eater behavior and her family history.
Every eater in Bones & All is different. They each have their triggers, preferences, and levels of what they’re willing to ingest. All of them keep particular mementoes of their meals. They tend to be solitary and nomadic, but are capable of recognizing one another on sight, perhaps due to pheromones. Eating may or may not always be hereditary, but in Maren’s case, it absolutely is. An eater like Lee is motivated by hatred of his meal; Sully, on the other hand, only dines on people who have recently died.
DeAngelis has a deft hand with characters and setting — Frank and his current life are tragic in comparison to the normal life he attempted to live because of his new family. Maren’s own struggle to carve out her identity is easily understandable to anyone who had difficulties with their own adolescence, culinary preferences notwithstanding. Then there’s her mother, Janelle — how hard must it have been for her to raise an eater, living in fear of the child she brought into the world?
Additionally, DeAngelis incorporates elements of mythology, literature, and semi-historical accounts of cannibalism into Bones & All. Maren’s journal contains a print of Saturn Devouring His Son, a painting by Francisco Goya depicting the Titan Cronus/Saturn eating one of his children in an effort to avoid his prophesied supplantation by his son Zeus/Jupiter. She also treasures a print of “Sawney Beane and His Cannibal Clan, Scotland,” which claims to depict the revelation of a 15th-16th century man who was allegedly executed for cannibalism; Bean may not have been a real person, but the tales of his exploits have passed into folklore. Maren, unable to relate to the princesses or scullery-maids in Grimm’s fairy tales, identifies with these figures instead. While this is obviously revolting and socially unacceptable, Maren is a teenager, and a sympathetic one at that. Eaters are still people with fears and aspirations, just set slightly apart from the masses (for obvious reasons).
Some readers have expressed their interpretation that DeAngelis was using the subject matter of cannibalism to convert her audience to her own practice of veganism, but that’s not how I perceived Bones & All. I saw more of an “origin story of a dangerous creature” angle to the subject and its presentation, with no intrusion of authorial politics or a hidden agenda.
DeAngelis’ notion of a wayward teenage cannibal is a welcome addition to the “supernatural creatures” sub-genre of YA horror. How many vampire/werewolf/zombie stories do we need? There are other things to fear, and it’s about time they get their due. Highly recommended.