“These days, Devon only bought three things from the shops: books, booze, and Sensitive Care skin cream. The books she ate, the booze kept her sane, and the lotion was for Cai, her son. He suffered occasionally from eczema, especially in winter.”
‘The Book Eaters’ is a contemporary fantasy with clever ideas, but one that doesn’t quite carry the reader on its journey. The premise is solid and the plot twists and turns, but the characters lack cohesiveness, losing connection and chipping away at enjoyment. However, the central themes are excellent, and many other readers may enjoy this for the atmosphere and exploration of motherhood.
Set in an alternate version of the present day UK, ‘The Book Eaters’ follows Devon, part of a race of humanoids who eat books to survive – absorbing the contents of everything they consume. In their highly patriarchal society, girls are raised on Fairytales and married young to produce rare, prized book eater children. Devon has no reason to question her life until her children are born – especially her son, who has a rare book eater variant meaning he consumes not books, but human minds. Desperate to protect him, Devon flees book eater society for human society – but she and her son are persecuted by those she has left behind, and without their protection she must find a mind for her son every month to prevent him going mad.
The book utilises dual timelines – the present day, following Devon trying to care for her son but also struggling with alcohol abuse brought on by the horrors she has experienced, and the past, starting at Devon’s childhood and gradually introducing why she’s been forced out of her society. The timelines at first work well, maintaining a sense of mystery and answering key questions in a show-don’t-tell manner. However, with some of the revelations, early characterisation and thoughts in the present day timeline cease to make sense, and the story ties itself in a bit of a problematic knot. Some of the impact is lost, which is a shame as the first half is very strong.
Devon is a character with huge potential. Her views on motherhood are warped by her upbringing and her strange relationship with her son – she loves him, but also fears him and his hunger for minds, and she resents what she has to do to keep him alive. The question of how far a parent would go for their child is central to the story and one of the strongest aspects – but again, later developments slightly dilute the message. There’s also potential for strong exploration around substance abuse, but this potential isn’t utilised as much as it could be. However, Devon is a likeable enough character to carry the story, and her character arc throughout is strong and well-rounded.
The most interesting character is Devon’s son, Cai. Much like the book eaters minds are shaped by the books they read, his entire personality is affected by the minds he consumes, raising intriguing questions around how much he is his own person. Cai’s feelings around his actions and what he has to do to survive are explored more towards the end, and this is one of the best parts of the book. In many ways, this would be a stronger novel if Cai was afforded a point of view – writing this would be immensely challenging, but done well it would enhance the novel. Regardless, Cai is well-written, and whilst he doesn’t get huge amounts of page time, his sections are always thought-provoking.
Book Eater society takes inspiration from seventeenth and eighteenth century England – not the most original, but well crafted and believable, aside perhaps from how they’ve remained under the radar in the social media age. The consequent exploration of feminism and same sex relationships in the context of a highly structured and patriarchal society has been done before but is done well here, as are themes of bodily autonomy and consent. Some sections are deliberately uncomfortable to read, but they’re well-written with no gratuity and strong impact.
Overall, ‘The Book Eaters’ has strengths in its exploration of themes of motherhood, feminism and autonomy, and the creativity of its premise, but the characters can lack cohesion at times and the plot overcomplicates itself with its dual timelines towards the end and starts to fall down on believability. A novel that may appeal to fans of atmospheric reads and the central themes, but that unfortunately didn’t convince me.
Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 18th August 2022