Ansley Boone is getting ready for a wedding, with her sister Shay marrying fiancé Nathan. But alongside all of the typical stresses and excitement that come with preparing for the special day, Ansley has personal issues. She is coping with the aftermath of mental and physical trauma and is now reliant on medication: “I was cutting my last benzodiazepine prescription down, mobbing my way into low dose Diazepam, as per strict, hellish instructions. Aprazolam, Lorazepam, Clonazepam, you name it, I’d been overprescribed it and its other mellow kin.”
Her boyfriend has dumped her, and she lost her job following a particularly severe breakdown in the workplace. Her parents are unsupportive and blame Ansley for her troubles, particularly her stanchly right-libertarian father: “To Dad, my problem, the withdrawals, was, of course, due to my own poor choices in how I handled my crippling anxiety, the panic attacks, the blackouts, the flare-ups.” By the time the wedding rolls around Ansley is left feeling like the family misfit, and she knows full well that her sister’s wedding day will be a test of self-endurance.
Although belonging to a genre that often treats mental illness as no more than motivation for serial killers, Reception makes it a priority to place the reader in Ansley’s shoes. She is cast as a figure deserving not merely of pity but of empathy, and we are encouraged to understand her in all the ways that her family and social circle do not – for example, we are shown that her violent turn at work resulted from the combined stresses of prescription failure and a collapsing relationship. But her problems are distorted by those around her, as when she overhears her therapist Leon talking to her mother:
I caught a snippet of what he finally was able to say to Mom, only because he’d raised his voice, and that itself was startling. Gone was the cool, easy façade he’d perfected. This version was a Leon I’d never seen or heard before.
“Mrs. Boone, she’ll need as much support as she receives here. She needs empathy on your end. Walk in her shoes. Try to understand her. The handbook I gave you earlier details her tapering plan, but that’s just part of it. Both her body and mind have gone through significant trauma because of the damage to her central nervous system.”
Mom seemed as if she was about to say something else, but she stopped herself. It looked as if she was thinking over his words carefully before she shook his hand and then pulled him in towards her. Or maybe it was the other way around. I just remember how close they were, head-to-head, conspiring, sharing secrets about me, the family shame, the walking embarrassment. They glanced over at me, smiling broadly, but their gaze read much more than that. I caught the glint in Mom’s eyes, that apprehension and doubt.
Secrets and two-facedness run through the family. When Shay is not around, her fiancé Nathan shows an obnoxious streak (“He was like a frat boy who’d consistently failed to graduate from adulating school”). When Shay is around, she misreads her sister’s body language and believes that Ansley has the hots for Nathan herself (”I saw the two of you looking at each other like you had some dirty, little secret. He’s engaged, Ansley”). But as she gets to know her impending in-laws, Ansley makes the most horrific realisation of all: her sister is marrying into a family of cannibals, and the wedding soon turns into an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Notably, this plunge into visceral horror does not occur until the novel’s halfway point (leaving aside the in medias res opening chapter). For its first half, Reception is a straight exploration of the mental health problems an tense family situation faced by its protagonist, albeit one with a streak of we’ve-all-been-there-haven’t-we observational comedy. All of this is thrown into sharp relief when the novel takes a sudden move into splatter territory.
The novel’s scenes of cannibal attacks have all the visceral gore that is to be expected (“The gaunt man had just leapt onto the back of the caterer, smacked a hand over his victim’s mouth, and was then tearing out the poor guy’s throat with his teeth”). But they also have a heavy element of absurd humour. When the violence first breaks out, Ansley’s father does not notice until it is too late because he is too busy berating his daughter, oblivious to the mayhem occurring right behind him.
The cannibals themselves turn out to be a clan of comically broad caricatures. Not unlike the cannibal patriarch in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Nathan’s father Rex is a self-proclaimed upholder of old-fashioned standards. “Your generation. Hell”, he gripes. “All y’all do is ‘feel’ like talkin’ about everything, don’t you? On your Youtube channels, your blogs n’vlogs, your Instagrams. You know what? You don’t need to say a damned thing if you don’t want. All you need to do is to satiate your newfound appetite an’ satisfy your nature with God-provided sustenance.” Elsewhere, he talks about “the moral import of ceremony and ritual”: “These sacraments keep us from becoming savages.” Nathan’s mother, Delia, is a still more grotesque portrayal of essentially the same character type:
Delia’s something out of a nightmarish fairy tale, the queen of the wastes who eats children and bathes in their blood in order to maintain that high tea-on-silver façade.
“I abhor pretense,” she says, like she’s reading my mind. “This,” she waves around us. “It’s in our nature, this. If we weren’t conditioned to be otherwise, there’d be no need for us—any of us—to hide.” She grins, and it cracks and creases the dough of her face. “And why should we? Isn’t this the era of ‘free-to-be-me,’ or whatever it is those repulsive children are calling it?”
Reception pits against each other two forms of literary madness: in the one corner is the considered, empathic portrayal of Ansley’s mental illness, in the other is the altogether more cartoonish craziness embodied by the cannibal family. The results can hardly be termed uplifting – indeed, the novel’s climax finds a way to take the story into still darker territory – but Reception is nonetheless a successful example of grand guignol with genuine heart.