Book Review

Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda

Lydia is hungry.

She’s always wanted to try sashimi, ramen, onigiri with sour plum stuffed inside – the food her Japanese father liked to eat. And then there is bubble tea and the vegetables grown by the other young artists at the London studio space she is secretly squatting in. But Lydia can’t eat any of this. The only thing she can digest is blood, and it turns out that sourcing fresh pigs’ blood in London – where she is living away from her vampire mother for the first time – is much more difficult than she’d anticipated.

Then there are the humans: the people at the gallery she interns at, the strange men who follow her after dark, and Ben, a goofy-grinned artist she is developing feelings for. Lydia knows that they are her natural prey, but she can’t bring herself to feed on them.

If Lydia is to find a way to exist in the world, she must reconcile the conflicts within her – between her demon and human sides, her mixed ethnic heritage, and her relationship with food, and, in turn, humans.

Before any of this, however, she must eat.

Woman, Eating is a novel that I bought on something of a whim. I was intrigued by the idea of a modern-day vampire tale and how this might be used to explore present day issues. I was absolutely blown away by it – it’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Lydia is a vampire, a word which conjures a certain concept in my mind although Lydia isn’t like that at all.  She appears for the most part as a young woman with only a few tell-tale signs that she is anything other than human which she keeps well hidden – she is cold to the touch, burns easily in sunlight, and has vastly superior senses to humans.  Since reaching adulthood, she has – or appears to have – stopped aging, and she needs blood to sustain herself, although she sticks to pigs’ blood rather than feasting on the abundance of prey available to her in London.  Beyond that, she is a normal young woman, living alone for the first time, interning at an art gallery, and generally doing all the things that people do upon reaching their twenties.  

So what is the point of Lydia’s vampirism?  It seems like a strange idea to throw into a novel that isn’t even close to being horror, but it’s through this concept that Kohda is able to explore various themes from a unique perspective.  Lydia has grown up being told that she is a monster by her equally vampiric mother, and it’s a lesson that she has taken to heart, viewing herself as something inherently unnatural and wrong.  Throughout the novel we see Lydia’s constant battle to come to terms who – and what – she is, her sense of alienation so deeply ingrained that she now struggles with self-acceptance.  It’s an unusual way of considering how those who feel – or who are made to feel – different can come to terms with that, and yet that is exactly the position in which Lydia finds herself. 

Lydia refuses to sate her thirst on humans – another lesson picked up from her mother – and so, unable to access the pigs’ blood that she would normally use to sustain herself, slowly begins to starve.  It’s a clear metaphor for the suppression of women’s appetites and contrasts with Gideon, director at the gallery where she is an intern.  With an eye for younger women and a wandering hand, he comes across as a creep who feels empowered to act upon his desires without fear of punishment.  It’s frustrating to see Lydia diminish herself so much that she is at risk of falling victim to the predatory Gideon when she herself shouldn’t have anything to fear from anyone.  The vampire is often considered a metaphor for a sexual predator, and Kohda seems to have reversed the roles in this novel in making Lydia a potential victim.

Lydia’s character is an unusual one for obvious reasons, but she is one that I felt sympathetic to.  She isolates herself out of necessity, unable to be herself around others, and her loneliness is palpable.  It’s pleasing to see her start to let her guard down a little at the studio as she gets to know the other artists, even as she remains cautious.  She is also struggling with her attraction to Ben (already engaged, although the attraction is not entirely one-sided) which becomes another desire that she is unable to act upon.  She comes across as having very human concerns and attitudes, and while some of her behaviour is odd (she entertains herself by watching YouTube videos of people eating) I think that plenty of readers will be able to relate to at least some aspects of her character and the challenges that she is facing.

Woman, Eating is a character-driven novel in which we see a young woman struggle with the myriad problems that life throws our way.  Beautifully written, I found it surprisingly easy to relate to, despite Lydia’s vampiric nature, as we see her battle with her identity, self-acceptance, and various forms of appetite.  It’s wholly original and brilliantly done, giving a new spin on the vampire myth to explore some very modern-day themes.  Highly recommended, I fully expect this to appear on my books of the year list come December.

Woman, Eating was published in March by Virago and is available in hardback and digital formats.


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