The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean
Harper Voyager, hb, £13.19
Reviewed by John Dodd
New concepts, that’s what we love.
A race of creatures that live by consuming books and the words within them, several secret organisations that exist beyond the realm of human notice, and the segregation of everything to keep the hierarchy exactly how it’s always been.
Until one day it’s not.
Devon is in hiding with her son, Cai, running from place to place and not able to stop. In the opening scene, she lures an innocent human into her home so that her son can feed and go on living, even though the feeding will exact a heavy toll from him.
We learn that this isn’t a normal family.
The story is told in two different timelines, the present day, where Devon is constantly on the run, and the past, where the details of how things came to be are laid out.
It’s always a balancing act when working in two different timelines, and this is no different. The requirement to keep the past an active story whilst not detracting from the ongoing immediacy of the here and now. This is done masterfully here. There are shades of The Handmaid’s Tale in the past, with Devon being passed from man to man to serve their needs and never her own. Tragedy is passed in the form of duty, and the sure and certain knowledge that this sort of thing goes on in the world we live in makes it all the more real when brought home as close as this.
Along the way, Devon encounters Hester, also bound by her circumstances, but determined to make a difference in all the ways she’s been forbidden to do. Most remarkable of all the characters is Cai, ostensibly a five-year-old, but with the mind and soul of all those people that they have consumed, the uncanny valley of a child with knowledge far beyond their years and, in this case, hundreds of years of lived experience, all of it imprinting on a consciousness not yet fully formed, every life consumed adding to their personality and changing things irrevocably. How can you be what you were supposed to be when you carry with you all the lives you’ve ended? How do you know what is you and what was a part of them?
This is what made the book riveting, the balance between a mother who has barely begun to explore her own journey into adulthood, forced into a world where the rules are changed by those in power to suit themselves and put servitude upon those below them, again, so much like the word we live in today. The skill to weave together a story from concepts so alien and yet leave them with that human touch that makes them relatable is ever evident in the story, and there is no script immunity, no character is immune from the ravages of fate and destiny, and that plays well into the fears of a young parent trying to do their best to make sure that their child will have a chance in the world they brought them into. Towards the end of the book, as the different plotlines merge and twist, there’s a real fear that even if they win, Devon and Cai may end up losing.
This is a book that I would recommend without hesitation, I was a single parent for many years, and the lived experience of the author shines through on the pages, that want, that need to make things right, even as the world lines up against you in all its unfairness, compels you to read further, to hope and dream for a better life for the characters on the page even as their situation becomes worse.
What I loved most about this book was the nature of the book eaters, creatures that live on the thoughts in images held within books that, when killed, explode into the books that they’ve consumed, in the manner of Blade, but with ink, rather than blood. Creatures that exist only for the next story, that live vicariously between the pages of what they consume.
Just like us, Dear Reader…
If you were to eat this book, it would be Michelin-starred.