Late one night on the outskirts of Kolkata, a middle-aged, lonely college professor named Alok is approached by a mysterious stranger who claims to be part-werewolf. He gives Alok mesmerising, terrifying visions, a prologue to what will become this stranger’s unbelievable story. Captivated by what he’s seen and wanting to know more, Alok agrees to transcribe the contents of two ancient scrolls the stranger possesses.
These scrolls contain a bloody, magical tale that transcends recorded history and legend both. The first tells the story of a powerful Nordic shapeshifter, one of whose many names is Fenrir, who travels east with two other shapeshifters and seeks to fuck a human woman in order to partake in what his people do not—the creation and bearing of children. The second scroll is written by Cyrah, the woman who was raped by a bestial-looking white stranger. Her story is one of resistance, sought clarity, and dissolution of boundaries as she straddles the two worlds she—and her unborn child—will inhabit.
The title is a pitch-perfect choice. That word, “devour,” is repeated again and again throughout, and imbued within that word are the sensations of urgency, unfulfilled satiation, desperate hunger and bone-snapping crunch, and eager ingestion and coalescing of eaten prey into one’s very being, melding the eater and the eaten into a being that contains the both of them.
The Devourers is ostensibly a tale of three lives, but it’s also the story of one. A tale in which individual histories bleed bleed into each other and come together to create one messy, awe-inspiring entity. Indra Das’s writing contains beauty and gruesomeness, and sometimes that gruesomeness is rendered into beauty. (A few times his metaphors don’t quite work/are distracting, but those are exceptions.) His writing is so rich I couldn’t read this book in long stretches, instead sipping twenty pages here or there before needing to sit and digest and roll around in what I’d just read. I was slow to warm up in the beginning, was definitely thawing during the first scroll, and was flat-out in love during the second scroll.
At the crux of this book are narrative, memory, and change. Shapeshifters from all over the world—all possessing differing customs and “second selves” but bound by a shared set of central,inviolable tenets—hunt and prey on humans. In doing so, they consume and retain their prey’s memories. Like all memories, they fade over time, but enough lives on such that shapeshifters remain aware of snippets of all the humans they’ve consumed. Yet the rub lies in daring to empathize too closely with humanity and mimic the ways of their prey—which, among many things, means a lack of any kind of recording tradition.
The first scroll is Fenrir’s attempt to engage in creation as opposed to consumption. He believes he is doing the same thing by impregnating Cyrah, and ignores that in raping her he made her his prey and made use of her flesh in an analogous fashion to his eating of humans for sustenance. Cyrah refuses to accept her assigned role in Fenrir’s imagined narrative as a passive incubator and bearer of his offspring, and seeks to understand the world she’s been unwillingly thrust into in order to make her own decision about her future—one that now includes the existence of primal-bound, super-powerful, shapeshifting monsters. Tying these two scrolls together is the tentative relationship forged between Alok and the mysterious stranger. They come together to resurrect these stories to in order to preserve these memories. This newly created narrative is both written and acted out, as the two of them circle around each other in what comes to be this tangled tale’s final act.
In the end, stories and memories are the agents of shapeshifting. A shapeshifter only becomes one after killing and eating their first human and absorbing their very being. In consuming another’s story, one absorbs the essence of its speaker contained within that story and incorporates their narrative into themselves. Shapeshifters and humans alike become amalgams of multiple memories and stories and narratives, and sometimes one of those absorbed pieces are so powerful they can induce a transformation. A shapeshifter may choose to transform their human body into that of a particularly powerful human they ate. A human may decide to change aspects or the entirety of their life on the basis of a consumed story powerful enough to catalyze such a change. Alok, the stranger, Fenrir, and Cyrah all undergo different transformations on the basis of what it is they’ve consumed or made a part of their lives that wasn’t there before.
If I’m making this book sound solely cerebral, trust me it isn’t. It’s extremely physical, full of blood and guts and body fluids (this is not the book for anyone who isn’t keen on these in their reading material) and bodies coming together and tearing apart, as well as and visceral emotions of rage and longing and love and loss. Also shapeshifters and shapeshifting magic.
I had read reviews prior to reading the book that Cyrah’s rape was surprisingly well-handled, but I was still skeptical about how necessary its inclusion really was to the story’s architecture. The act itself and afterwards written in a non-titillating manner, and Fenrir’s actions as a rapist are consistently condemned both by Cyrah and the narrative. Even better, Indra Das weaves in Cyrah’s condemnation, and the larger issue of consent, into the thematic underpinnings of the book itself. Over the course of the story the characters—Alok and the stranger, Fenrir and Cyrah and Gévaudin—navigate different acts of creation and transformation, the primary element dividing these acts is the presence or lack thereof of consent. And in those instances where the former is present, those acts of creation subvert the pre-established roles of hunter and prey in favor of… not equality, but nevertheless simultaneous consumption and sharing of bodies, a sharing of those roles, a sharing of of stories, of each other.
Character-wise, Cyrah is the standout. She is the kind of ordinary person who never expected her life to be anything other than the ordinary one of a poor woman with no family whose life is turned upside down when she comes into contact with a side of the world she never knew existed, one she can’t ignore after it forced itself onto her. She’s fierce, resilient, and furious, and to Fenrir and his traveling companion’s disbelief she forges ahead and dares to make her own place within that new world. Not a full inhabitant, but nevertheless an immovable presence.
The Devourers is a masterful book. If I’d finished it earlier, I’d have included it on my favorite reads of 2016. As it is, I’m glad to have started out 2017 with such a strong read. Highly recommended.