- The Good: Cultish gothic horror with people who eat books and minds
- The Bad: Ineffective characters
- The Literary: Alternating timelines; a new take on vampires
Deep within the Yorkshire Moors lives The Family, a reclusive clan of people who eat books. Devon Fairweather grew up eating fairy tales and cautionary stories while her brothers ate up stories of valor and adventure. From a young age Devon was told she was a princess and her husband would be carefully picked for her so that she would continue the species.
I love the idea that books are food for book-eaters and that they retain the content after eating it. Romance novels are sweet; spy novels are a peppery snack; and dictionaries are punishment for children when they misbehave. Entirely new languages can be learned in an afternoon. There are limitations though. Eating maps only gives a sense of names in relation to one another and learning a new skill in theory isn’t the same as years of muscle memory.
As a tween, Devon learns that book-eaters are dying off and there are only a handful of female book eaters left in the UK. Her arranged marriage is to an older man she’s never met, and she’s forced to leave the only home she’s ever known. She has a baby girl, which everyone is excited about, but after only a couple of years, Devon is forced to leave her daughter, only to remarry and try for another baby.
Reluctantly, Devon performs her duty, promising herself not to become attached. She has a son born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—he’s a monster who eats human minds. Everyone wants her to put the baby down, but Devon falls in love with her son, realizing she’ll do anything for him, and the story is set in motion.
The possibilities of book-eating fall into the tale’s backdrop, and Devon’s quest becomes one of raising what is essentially a vampire child in cramped apartments in Newcastle, carefully selecting victims who won’t be missed. There are some interesting consequences of mind-eating, like absorbing personality traits and memories of the eaten, but the plot doesn’t rest on the established rules of the fantasy world.
Instead, this a quiet story about a woman who escapes her cult family, lives on the periphery, and asks questions about what defines a “good person”. The title of this book evokes a magical journey of becoming lost in story, which sets up expectations that this novel doesn’t fulfill. Don’t read this for an intricate fantasy plot. You’ll need to shift your framework on what this book actually is—a reflection on motherhood and being queer in a world dominated by powerful but small men.
Even after I reset my expectations for a gothic horror, I don’t find Devon particularly compelling as a character, with her simple motivations and deferential nature. Nor do I particularly enjoy the religious cult of the third act, which feels generic in the way of Jonestown. I want book-eating and mind-eating to be symbolic of some larger societal commentary, but I’m not sure what it is.
Structurally, the switch between past and present chapters is delicate and effective. If you enjoy audiobooks, I really like the narrator’s Northern accent. Recommended for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale ready for a gothic twist.