Thursday, 23 February 2017

#CBR9 Book 15: "The Devourers" by Indra Das

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 3 stars

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book. It certainly wasn't whatever The Devourers ended up being. I'm still not entirely sure what I actually read. Let me try to provide a plot summary.

While out for an evening in Kolkata, India, lonely college professor Alok runs into a mysterious and handsome stranger who claims to be a half-werewolf. He weaves a tale that utterly beguiles Alok and the professor becomes obsessed with both seeing the nameless stranger again, and hearing the end of his tale. He agrees to transcribe a series of notebooks for the stranger, all so he can meet him again occasionally.

The first notebook tells the story of three shapeshifters from somewhere in Europe. They all seem to have come from different places, one from the far north, one from a distant France and one from Greece. These three predators travel together as a pack, hunting and feasting on the flesh of men, women and children as they move across the globe. They end up in 17th Century Mughal India, where Fenrir, the one from the north, becomes obsessed with a young prostitute, causing an irrevocable rift between him and his travelling companions.

The second set of documents that Alok is set to transcribe appears to be the story of Cyrah, the young Muslim woman who is raped by Fenrir, a creature determined to reproduce, which his shapeshifting kind is normally unable to do. Cyrah is disgusted by him and unwilling to bear the child, but nonetheless wants to confront the creature who forced her, and have a reckoning. She allies herself with Gevaudan, Fenrir's former companion, and together they develop an uneasy truce as they try to track Fenrir through India.

Alok is further ensorcelled by the tales he transcribes, correctly deducing that they narrate the origins of his mysterious stranger's parents. He is both repulsed and fascinated by the tale, trying to disprove what he's reading as fiction, even as he becomes convinced that the nameless stranger is telling the truth about the dark creatures who lurk on the outskirts of human society.

There are several shapeshifting myths explored in the pages of this novel. There are the werewolves and other shapeshifter beliefs of Europe, and the rakshasas of India. It is a book that in parts absolutely disgusted me, as there is far too much graphic description of people being murdered, torn apart and eaten. There seems to be an inordinate amount of attention paid to all kinds of bodily excretions, be it piss, shit, blood or semen. Some sections of the book were incredibly slow and rather boring to me, whilst in other sections, the story flew by and I completely lost track of time.

One of the things that disgusted me was Fenrir's arrogance, his casual rape of Cyrah and his conviction that he somehow loved her, and could make her love him in return. His determination to reproduce, and force her to carry his child to term, without any care for her wishes or bodily autonomy. Generally, with the exception of Gevaudan, who becomes a bit more sympathetic as the story goes on, probably because he tries to restrain himself from straight up murdering innocents while he travels with Cyrah, the shapeshifters are all utterly awful. I really wanted to give up on the book several times, but decided to keep reading to the end, no matter what, since this was the book I voted for in the upcoming CBR book club, and I was damned if I was going to DNF a book of a mere 300 pages when I stuck with The Count of Monte Cristo till the end.

There are some interesting themes explored in this book, like the nature of gender identity and the ability to change shapes at will. It's clearly implied that some of the shapeshifters have been female, but they seem to have been harder to accept by the others. All the shapeshifters, be they werewolves or rakshasas, seem to have strange, semi-incestuous sexual relationships, where the ones that nurture the young also are the ones that intitiate them into sexual rites. This was yet another aspect that didn't entirely sit right with me.

I liked the bits about Cyrah and Gevaudan and the friendship that developed between them. Most of the other parts, I had to force myself to finish. I'm rating the book 3 stars, because it's clear that it is doing something different and unusual, and I suspect the book just isn't for me. Like The Lobster, which I saw last year, a movie that is pretty much universally hailed as brilliant and super funny, and which I still haven't been able to make up my mind about, but that I'm pretty sure I didn't, in fact, like (I just cannot get over what they did to the dog), even though parts of it made me howl with laughter.

In yet another example of how small the world really is now that we are connected via the internet, I'm pretty much certain that this book was written by the brother of someone my husband and I befriended years ago on a Hellblazer fan forum. When I added the book to my Goodreads TBR list last year, said person liked my status. I didn't really think much of it, as this sort of thing happens all the time. But they share the same surname, and some Facebook snooping later has convinced me that yes, my internet acquaintance Abhimanyu, who I've discussed many nerdy things with online for years, and whom I've chatted with in the pub on one of our visits to New York, is indeed the brother of the author of this book. It just makes me even more sad that I didn't like it more. I'm really sorry, Abhi, that your brother's book didn't work for me. I didn't hate it, but I certainly have no wish to ever re-read it. There were way too many gross parts (and the whole rape thing) for me to ever want to do that.

Judging a book by its cover: While I'm deeply conflicted about the contents of this book, I absolutely love the cover. What I can only assume is Cyrah, the unwilling victim at the centre of the tale, with the scroll telling her story, the leaves, thorns, berries and flower, not to mention the bone-like branches make the book look wonderfully mysterious and inviting. The cover was one of the things that drew me to the book and I still find it striking, even though I'm coming down on the dislike of the actual book in the end.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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