Rachel Pollack has gained herself a reputation of producing highly literate books which at times can be difficult to understand. One reason for this is that she likes to believe that the reader is as intelligent as she is.
The Child Eater is a beautifully produced book. The contents don’t disappoint either. It is also very accessible. In 2008 she published a collection of short stories, The Tarot of Perfection. Two of the stories were ‘Master Matyas’ and ‘Simon Wisdom’. She has built on these to create this fascinating novel. Running parallel with each other but never quite touching are the histories of these two title characters.
Matyas lives in what we would regard as a fantasy world. His parents run a wayside inn called the Hungry Squirrel. He is treated very much as a slave but sometimes escapes to the woods. On one occasion he sees a man flying and going onto the wood. He follows and sees the man conversing with a head on a stick. After this, Matyas wants to be able to fly and stows away in a carriage that takes him to the city where he expects to train as a wizard. It is not quite as glamorous as he dreams but he does get taken as apprentice, or skivvy, by Mistress Veil. Matyas is a seeker after knowledge and in particular the spell that will let him fly, despite everyone laughing at him.
Simon Wisdom is a strange child living in the contemporary world. He is able to read the thoughts of others, though he is told not to as it is cheating. His father, Jack, used to have strange dreams but his parents instilled into him the notion of being normal, of not standing out or being noticed. He wants the same for Simon, especially as, from his perceptions, his wife tried to kill his son as a baby. Jack is prepared to consider any treatment to make Simon normal.
Although the stories are totally separate there are links. A lot of Pollack’s work revolved around the tarot. Matyas has seen a set of tarot cards in Veil’s possession. They are the Tarot of Eternity. Not the original but a copy of a copy, but still potent. The original has been well hidden by the man who made them. Simon, too, comes into possession of a deck of tarot cards. These used to belong to his mother who told fortunes for a living.
Squirrels feature in both parts. It isn’t just the name of the inn he grew up in but later in the book we come across two squirrels, one grey, one red. Rebecca, Simon’s mother, was feeding two such squirrels when Jack met her and they appear at intervals through Simon’s life. They were the ones that showed him where his mother’s tarot cards were. The being known as the Child Eater appears in both worlds, initially as a shadowy figure. In both worlds children go missing and when found are mutilated and devoid of souls. The Child Eater believes that by devouring enough children he will become immortal.
Although the principle characters and their worlds never intersect, there are enough connections to make this book succeed as a whole entity and demonstrates the skilfulness of the plotting and the cleverness of the story-telling. This is a book that comes highly recommended.