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Bleed into your mind

This disruptive debut work is not your vapid vampire novel — it explores who the ultimate consumers are and what that does to art and artists.
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 20:30 IST

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Literature, like all art, is tasked with holding up a mirror. And yet, some works fill us not with assurances but with more questions. Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda is frankly baffling. Almost unprecedented in matter and style, it holds fragments and essences of what reading has always unspooled. No debut novel has any business being this disruptive and good.

Lyd has an art internship at a London gallery, The Otter, and a studio, a short walk away. Inept at living by herself, she draws grandiose future plans: shifts her mother to a retirement home, puts their home on rent, and moves, only to promptly lose her suitcase — in short, tries her damnedest to fit in. It isn’t easy. Lyd’s system rejects all human food and only blood sustains. Yeah, she’s a vampire. Not the usual vapid YA vampire romp, this book explores an erudite universe of existential crisis through the mind of a common misfit. With a sparse cast of characters, it is Lyd who is in the front and centre, the slow burn of her thoughts and interactions that tend to imprint and articulate humanity’s own alienations.

Justice is done to the many interwoven strands making it tough to summarise the book. The narrative thread that glows and comes alive via the writer’s spare yet descriptive style is on the art world. This belongs up there — with Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy — as the highest tribute to art via fiction. Kohda’s route is different, not biographical nor fixated on one artwork. Almost art ecology in slow motion, the book travels through the commune of artists; what success as an artist does to an arty couple; the many iterations a canvas endures; the absurd in art; power equations; also borderline criminality around art; while dealing with overarching questions about who the ultimate consumers are and what that does to artists and art. A brief comparison between a glitzy soiree at the Otter and an exhibition down the road at RCA where people spend time with art is less sociological comment and more what contexts do to a work of art. Canvas and sculptures spring to life in the telling of paintings, exhibitions, collectors and art material.

A maze of self-loathing

The story of a mother and daughter caught in a maze of self-loathing, mutual harm and love leads to an attempted disruption. Yet the umbilical cord is so strong it cannot be fully dispensed with. In small dabs and as a background palette, the world of women comes alive. The friendship with Ye-Ye, the only other Asian girl at school, cannot endure because humans and vampires age differently. Heather at the Otter comes across as peremptory and dictatorial while merely on the verge of a breakdown. Maria is effusive while intent on feeding and healing. It is Anju, the successful artist whose boyfriend Ben gets embroiled in the crisis that is Lyd’s life, who has it all and is ready to dispense with all that stands in her way, Ben included.

And the men — whether it is her dead Japanese artist father, Ben or the predatory Gideon who owns the Otter — are allergens like food. They are bad for her system. And when one of them unknowingly nudges a vampire too far they turn from food to blood and may be ingested fully. There is a kind of feminist release within the act, a sort of homecoming.

The writing is bare to the point of being stark and yet precisely layered. Often it drifts towards philosophy: “Currently, I am hoping to be rather than being: I’m not yet an independent adult; I’m hoping to become one. I’m not yet an artist; I’m hoping to become one.” Places are pared down to their essential characteristics, their reasons for being. Here the facts of a retirement home sum it up. “All stages of life are on the coffee table, represented in magazines, and fanned out. The only part of life not represented, I suppose, is the final stage, which is on the other side of the door, in the other rooms of this building.”

The nature of her parent’s marriage is unclear though her mum does denigrate his one enduring legacy, his art while admitting he was a good man. And Lyd muses, patching the personal with the political: “Sometimes, I wondered whether my mom chose to be with a Japanese human so she could control him and consume him, so she could essentially colonise his body in the way that Japan had briefly colonised Malaysia.”

Unusual, powerful and in moments exquisite, this brave book explores the landscape of equalities where the racist, patriarchal, consumerist or ideologically diverse all are forced to operate on a level playing field without quite sucking blood from the weaker.

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Published 03 June 2023, 20:21 IST

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