Jane Takagi-Little is a young American/Japanese documentary film maker living in New York. She is broke and looking for a job when she gets a call from her former boss in Japan.
He offers her the job of making a series of documentaries about meat. The series is sponsored by the American meat export industry and is supposed to promote the wholesomeness of beef among Japanese houswives.
The title of the documentary is going to be “My American Housewife”. It shows American women talking about and presenting their families and preparing easy meat dishes.
Jane's documentary brief: Attractiveness is paramount. Values should be "all-American". Husband is supposed to be docile, children obedient, house clean and hobbies exciting. Undesirable things, such as physical imperfections, obesity, squalor and "second class peoples" should be avoided. Her brief for the meat reads "Pork is possible, but beef is best".
The longer Jane films these "housewives", the more she becomes aware of the cliche and pretense of the concept. So she starts showing a different range of families: African-American, disabled, Hispanic, mixed-race or working-class and too poor to buy all but offal. A white couple with two children of their own and ten adopted Asian children, a lesbian vegetarian mixed-race couple with two daughters and so on. Of course Jane gets into trouble with this new approach.
What she finds out about the American meat industry and the so-called "wholesomeness" of meat is also hindering her filmed promotion of meat export. She begins to research American beef and learns about the many pharmaceuticals and chemicals added to cattle feed. Her descriptions of a livestock feedlot and slaughterhouse are disgustingly real.
Just by chance she finds out about a pharmaceutical called DES which, through prenatal intake and eating meat, causes a variety of health problems. After years of wondering why she had to cope with gynecological problems, such as infertility, she finally learns that her mother had a double dose of DES during pregnancy.
Joichi "John" Ueno works for a Tokyo advertising agency and advises the documentary film producers. He is responsible for the success of the “My American Houswife” series. He also beats and humiliates his wife, Akiko Ueno who has developed bulimia and can't have children because her periods have stopped.
Joichi is ordering her to prepare, eat and rate all meat recipes shown in the series - partly because he loves to eat meat, partly because he wants to fatten up his wife so they can have children.
While Jane is shooting film after film in America, Akiko faithfully watches in Japan. She increasingly becomes aware of her dreadful situation and is radicalised by Jane's subtle and subversive messages.
But there's more to My Year of Meat: We learn a lot about Japanese culture, get a love-story thrown in, as well as factual information about the American meat industry, a DES Action group and lots of excerpts from The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, a 10th Century lady-in-waiting to emperess Sadako.
The book is slow paced at first and picks up speed when Jane and Akiko eventually get into contact. The emotional developement of the two women is at the heart of this amazing, multi-layered, book.
The author Ozeki has meticulously researched the subject, and her explanation of the consequences of hormone exposure reads like a thriller. Her ability to describe complex metaphysical situations and make them "feelable" is outstanding. It took just minutes of reading to get me completely hooked. My verdict: Not to be missed, very readeable, funny and thought-provoking novel. Highly recommended.
My Year of Meats by Ruth L Ozeki, published by Macmillan.