A Soldier's Steamy Affair: 'Meat Loves Salt' School teacher Maria McCann did her homework when writing this erotic, historical novel about the English Civil War. Lionel Shriver says she couldn't stop reading about this torrid romance between two 17th century soldiers.


A Soldier's Steamy Affair: 'Meat Loves Salt'

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Now, the latest in our series "My Guilty Pleasure," where writers talk about books they're embarrassed to admit they love. Today, an erotic novel of exacting historical detail, set during the English civil war of the 1640s. The book is called "As Meat Loves Salt," by Maria McCann.

Here's author Lionel Shriver to explain why it is her guilty pleasure.

Ms. LIONEL SHRIVER (Author): I remember when I first idly opened "As Meat Loves Salt" over my morning coffee. I had other plans for that day. Yet after about 10 pages, I put those plans aside. Indulging myself, I curled into a living room armchair, and galloped on as the sun rose high. In my easily distracted adulthood, I have rarely - alas - said this of any novel, but I could not put it down.

"As Meat Loves Salt" is narrated by a brooding, intermittently violent young man named Jacob, who does not know himself. In flight from a murder and a brief, disastrous marriage, he joins the New Model Army, led by the parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell, from which he and his new friend Ferris eventually go AWOL.

It isn't until halfway through the novel that Jacob realizes - and we realize - that the tension between Jacob and Ferris is sexual, and they embark upon a torrid affair. Yet in the 1640s, the mild, accepting term "gay" had yet to be coined. Bookshops didn't have whole sections cheerfully devoted to gay literature. Rather, homosexuality was a hanging offense. Jacob and Ferris' passionate, fractious relationship courts calamity.

I happen to be straight and female. Yet McCann's novel - to my incredulity, her first - is one of the most erotic I have ever read. But it isn't, like so much erotic literature, embarrassing. Her language is carefully couched in the terms of the time without ever seeming fusty, coy or obscure. We know perfectly well what she means when she writes: His blood was up.

Moreover, the historical details are seamlessly interwoven into the text. And rather than seem to show off how much homework the author has done, they create the sense of immediacy that I always need to get hooked by a historical novel. After all, the past was once the present. Thus, McCann has written a tony version of "We Were There at the English Civil War."

Ever since reading this book, I've felt curiously proprietary about the conflict - as if I truly know what it was like, as if I were there. Apparently, Maria McCann was a schoolteacher when she wrote this novel, and used to get up at 5 a.m. every weekday to write a few more pages. But so professional was her work that when her editor showed her manuscript to an expert on the period, the only error the historian discovered was a particular postal vehicle, which wasn't used until a few years later. That's pretty high marks.

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BLOCK: The book is called "As Meat Loves Salt," by Maria McCann. It's the guilty pleasure of Lionel Shriver, whose latest novel is titled "So Much for That."

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