books you may love: The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean
August was the month in which I came out of my reading slump that began sometime in late spring and lasted most of summer. I devoured many books (note the use of the word 'devoured'), mostly in the mystery genre, and I was convinced I'd be writing about those books in this post before the newsletter goes out this Sunday.
Only, I started reading Sunyi Dean's The Book Eaters earlier this week, that too because I was due to return it to the library soon (and it's already a couple of days overdue, yikes) but I didn't want to return it unread. And once I started reading, I couldn't stop.
After a long time has come along a fantasy book that I enjoyed with all my heart. At its very essence, the story is about a group of secret Families living on the Yorkshire moors for whom books are literally food. And when they eat books, they retain all the content!
It is a highly patriarchical setup in which the female book eaters are fed a diet of fairy tales while the males intake stories of adventure and bravery. Our protagonist is a female book eater, Devon, whose story is revealed to us in two parallel timelines.
This format is one I've come to love ever since I started reading Kate Morton's fiction several years ago and all of her books have past and present timelines. This is a format I adopted for my own Dying Wishes. It is almost like reading two different but connected stories in tandem within the same book, and in the end the two stories come together in a way that explains so much more than occasional backstories alone can.
So anyway, coming back to The Book Eaters, we follow Devon in her childhood as she grows up in her Family, and Devon in the present day, where she looks after her five-year-old son, Cai, who is not a book eater but is born a mind eater instead. And Devon has to find people she can feed to Cai to keep her son's hunger sated.
And that is only a small though significant part of the overall story, because it truly is about so much more. It won't do the book any justice if I were to tell you about all the other different characters and storylines in the book.
But what I can tell you is this: Dean's writing traverses the issues of motherhood, patriarchy, systemic oppression, loyalty towards family, sibling dynamics, and love for one's children, and also presents a beautiful portrayal of true and trustworthy friendship against the backdrop of this very fascinating and engrossing fantasy world.
And if that is not convincing enough, video games too make an unexpected but very important appearance in this book about book eaters and mind eaters.
At the risk of sounding like a book eater, I have to say that this book was truly a treat and I devoured it!
I will leave you with some excerpts that won't reveal much of the story itself but will give you a glimpse into Devon's struggles and Dean's riveting storytelling.
The one right below is at the time of the birth of Devon's son, Cai.
... she was attached. Again. To another tiny creature who would snuff out her spirit when she lost him to the Families, only this time things were harder becuase he was a boy – horror! – and might grow up to be something worse than a bride: a knight, or even a husband. Or both. A hurter of women and a hunter of princesses. And still she would adore him, hopelessly; pine for his loss, endlessly.
For here was the thing that no fairy tale would ever admit, but that she understood in the moment: love was not inherently good.
Certainly, it could inspire goodness. She didn't argue that. Poets would tell you that love was electricity in your veins that could light a room. That it was a river in your soul to lift you up and carry you away, or a fire inside the heart to keep you warm. Your electricity could also fry, rivers also drown, and fires could burn; love could be destructive. Punishingly, fatally destructive.
And the other thing, the real bloody clincher of it all, was that the good and the bad didn't get served up equally. If love were a balance of electric lights and electric jolts, two sides of an equally weighted coin, then fair enough. She could deal.
That wasn't how it worked, though. Some love was just the bad, all the time: an endless parade of electrified bones and drowned lungs and hearts that burned to a cinder inside the cage of your chest.
And so she looked down at her son and loved him with the kind of twisted, complex feeling that came from having never wanted him in the first place; she loved him with bitterness, and she loved him with resignation. She loved him though she knew no good could ever come from such a bond.
This one below is when Devon shares her story with another character and he asks her,
"Anything else you wish to share of your adventures, Devon? That is an invitation, to be clear, and not a demand."
Anything else? Well. She could tell them about the relief that alcohol brought as the months had dragged on; about the guilt-ridden dreams, and the compass with Salem's picture that weighed heavier than chains. About all those nights standing over her son's sleeping form as she thought about smothering him, then stopping herself. About the discarded victims she'd carried, one by one by one to a slew of homeless shelters over the months.
But if Devon talked about any of that, then she'd have to talk about how you really could get used to anything, with enough time and motivation; how her crimes swiftly dwindled form horrific and extraordinary to a facet of her everyday reality.
She had worked out at some point that this was how the Easterbooks conducted their trafficking without breaking a sweat; how the patriarchs overlooked the suffering and servitude of the mother-brides they destroyed; how humans could continue to exist in an infrastructure of misery. Trauma became routine, and cruelty mundane. Just life, innit.
And these lines that Devon says need no context at all.
"But I do know we can only live by the light we're given, and some of us are given no light at all. What else can we do except learn to see in the dark?"
Let me know if you read this book, and we can chat about its beauty until the end of our days.