Reading The Carnivore was an interesting experience for me, because I’ve never been so engrossed in a story centered on characters I couldn’t stand. Both of the protagonists teetered on the border of unbearable, and perhaps it was because I anxiously wanted to see what abyss they’d sink into next, but I just couldn’t get enough. Like the undertow of the flooding rivers the pages describe, each time I turned a page I was sucked further in.
This is the story of a failed marriage, a husband and wife narrating alternating chapters of reflection on their troubled past. It is a story of a shared memory lacking the capacity to heal, existing only as the point of regeneration for a lifelong downward spiral. This fictional trip through the past takes place on the backdrop of the very real Hurricane Hazel, one of the deadliest storms to ever hit southern Ontario. The metaphor of the storm tracks perfectly the course of Ray and Mary’s union; like the citizens of Toronto preparing for the floods, they didn’t know exactly what to expect, were hit with innumerable horrors but somehow managed to survive and, when it passed, felt nothing but relief.
Interestingly, Hurricane Hazel had lost most of its momentum before moving north and breaking up, dropping most of its moisture on Toronto. What hit Ray and Mary was much the same; not a passing storm, but an immense flood that did irreparable damage to their relationship.
As a young ingénue, Mary “hoped, and trusted even, that we could share an extraordinary love, and that would set us apart.” Because her husband had already cheated on her multiple times, Mary comes off as kind of a sucker, and her resentment at committing to her sinking ship of a marriage only grows into deep-seated bitterness as she ages. The only time I sympathized with her character was in relation to Ray, a very particular kind of monster. Completely devoid of any redemptive quality, Ray is eaten by his own selfishness, trapped in memories of his past and hurting everyone along the road to the future, left only to ask himself: “Will something change if I relive it enough times?”
The most remarkable thing about The Carnivore was that, through all of this, I wanted to keep reading. Desperately. Sinnett creates such a vivid and honest picture of Ray and Mary’s world that reading the book feels something like looking over their shoulders during the course of their relationship. Because it moves along at such a furious pace, however, I never felt like I was stuck too long in a room with an arguing couple and needed to escape. Though my first reaction was that the ending was somewhat anticlimactic juxtaposed against the action of the novel, it fits; in a story where sheer, white-knuckle survival is key, the real triumph is that they survived each other.
Bonus! Mark Sinnett reading from The Carnivore: