A Hot, Fun Gothic Mess

Sunyi Dean’s wild genre mashup, ‘The Book Eaters’

It would make no sense to combine a vampire lesbian Wuthering Heights with a gothic princess fairy tale. Certainly, no writer should ever aim to add all those things into a speculative fiction novel where the central six “Families” (who  a divine—or alien—“Collector” may have placed on Earth) consume only books for nourishment. Somehow, though, Sunyi Dean gets away with this, and more, in The Book Eaters.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Partly she avoids the pitfalls of a myriad unlikely genres, allusions, and conceits through debut novel enthusiasm and a rip-roaring plot, as princess protagonist Devon Fairweather tries to escape the Families. Partly, she can rely on Devon’s fierce maternal pride to provide constant motivation and partly because Dean herself has no qualms in owning the text’s weirdness.

Even beyond the “biblichor” or old book smell that permeates the first few chapters, Dean commits to the gross materiality of beings that physically consume books—it’s not just a metaphor for how people absorb information. At some point Devon needs to eat some specialized pages and her friend brings her ketchup, telling her it’s “a human condiment but the acidic content works a charm on glossy coated paper.”

The Book Eaters
‘The Book Eaters’, by Sunyi Dean. (MacMillan).

On her wedding night, Devon’s first “husband” feeds her swan-shaped aphrodisiacs formed from texts that deal with the poetry of love. “Her tongue tingled from the first bite, starbursts cascading across her vision.” She feels faint and “would have slumped back if not for Luton [her husband] offering a steadying hand. ‘Is that the Song of Solomon?’ The Bible, but never as she’d eaten it before.”

While Dean revels in her writerly conceits, the community she describes is in crisis. There’s a running gag about how tall Devon is, but in general book eaters are indistinguishable from humans to the naked eye. However, they are biologically distinct—book eaters have an extra set of teeth, and are faster and impervious to cold, though less imaginative. That means they have trouble applying human medical solutions to their own problems.

In the book eaters’ Britain, the six Families are facing a shrinking community and a reproductive predicament. They are, obviously, in hiding from humans and having trouble using IVF. Book-eater women, however, have been in short supply for a while, and with only two viable pregnancies for most women and only six “houses” ruled by patriarchs, the men lavishly cherish, and completely control, the women. Devon is sold into reproductive “marriage” on two separate occasions, to Luton and Matley. For each she produces a child that she must mother for three years and then never see again.

It’s at the point where they try to remove her from her son Cai, that she escapes the patriarchy with him in tow. Just to add one more twist to the puzzle, he is a “mind eater” an occasional genetic “deviant” that book eaters produce that eat minds rather than books for sustenance! On the run with him, Devon realizes that love, even maternal love, is not always good — it can make you do bad things, like kill attackers with your extra set of book teeth or feed your child living humans.

The Families spread around Britain–mostly in places where famous women writers lived or wrote about. And, though they trace their heritage to Romania, most of them, like Devon and Luton, have first names taken from places around the island. The Book Eaters has plot holes, loose ends, and inconsistencies aplenty. Surprisingly given her two transactional marriages, but appropriately for the writers Dean has in mind—most notably Mary Shelley and the Brontës—Devon is both chased and chaste. This is no bodice-ripper, but it is a hot, fun, gothic mess.

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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward and the author of an ebook about Tears for Fears, the 80s rock band. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter.

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