Lately, it’s been rather tough to find a story that can properly be called a “dark fairytale,” mostly because the market is saturated with a version of the subgenre that’s not so much “dark” or “fairytale” as it is a vehicle for badly written, thinly-veiled erotica featuring fairytale characters. As I am someone whose idea of a proper dark fairytale is something along the lines of Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples”, or Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, finding something that can satisfy that particular craving has been irritatingly difficult.
Fortunately, I recently decided to pick up The Devourers by Indra Das, despite having some misgivings about the blurb, which claimed that this was a story about werewolves. (There are werewolves, but – well, not quite either.) Set mostly in Kolkata, India, it tells the story of a young man named Alok, who meets a stranger who claims he is half-werewolf. Drawn in by the stranger’s mystique, Alok soon finds himself tangled in the stranger’s story: a story of blood and violence, of gods and mortals – and, at the heart of it all, a woman who defies all such categories to become a thing unto herself.
The first thing the reader will notice about this book is the beauty of its language, which is important because the quality of Das’ writing is a major component of the charm of this novel. See, part of the beauty of any story is down to the storyteller: the better the storyteller, the more likely the story is to stick around in a person’s memory, or even to take root deeply enough to become a part of that person’s very self. That’s why the Disney versions of fairytales have such a hold on popular culture – if the minds behind Disney are good at anything at all, it’s that they’re good at telling stories.
The same can be said of Das, because his writing has the same hypnotic cadence the reader might expect of a born storyteller, married to the artistic sensibilities of a poet. When he opens the novel, he does so with a description of Kolkata under moonlight, describing the quality of the light, the scents, the sounds – everything that makes up the scene. It’s not quite the more traditional “Once upon a time in a land far, far away” of the standard fairytale, but it certainly gets the reader into a similar, appropriate mindset. At times achingly gorgeous, at other times utterly sensual, Das’ writing is definitely the strongest selling point this book has, and it’s almost guaranteed to seduce the reader into continuing with the story
However, unlike in fairytales, where the beauty hides the ugliness or eliminates it completely, Das uses the beauty of his language to reveal the ugliness that lies just beneath the surface. This beautiful writing is also applied to the violence in this book – of which there is plenty to go around. Though the phrase “dark fairytale” is often considered an indicator that the story has some rather unsavory content, a part of me thinks that the phrase doesn’t do a very good job of conveying just how unsavory that violence can be, and it might be a nasty shock to some readers who are not expecting it – to the point that other reviewers have found it very off-putting. I completely understand the reaction: I also feel that there need not have been so many graphic scenes in this story, and I think Das may have overdone it a tad in certain places.
And yet, I understand why such scenes make an appearance – especially in a story like the kind in this novel. At its core, The Devourers is a story about the liminal spaces between places, genders, identities, beliefs – and the transition between them. It is, therefore, a story about transformations, and as everyone knows, transforming oneself is not an easy process, nor is it painless. Consider puberty: that period in which a person transitions from childhood into adulthood. I doubt there’s a person out there who can truthfully say that puberty was an easy time for them, and anyone who says otherwise is either preternaturally lucky (highly unlikely, but still in the realm of possibility) or lying (far more likely and also entirely possible).
Fairytales, too, are about transformations: Cinderella transforms from maid to princess, the Little Mermaid from mermaid to human (per Disney’s version) or from mermaid to human to sea foam (per the original Hans Christian Andersen version). In dark fairytales, that transformation is generally portrayed as painful and difficult. Das is following in the latter tradition, albeit in a more graphic, visceral manner. While I might question the amount of violence in this story, I won’t deny the punch-to-the-gut power the story otherwise has, once the reader gets past all the blood, guts, piss, and rape. Stories have the power to create change, to force transformations. Just as fairytales have the power to shape us as children, and therefore shape who we become, Das’ story has a similar power to shape the reader, no matter how briefly.
Overall, The Devourers is the very best kind of fairytale: beautifully told, with language the resonates in the reader’s head long after he or she has put the book down. However, for all the beauty of its language, it is still a very dark tale, and while graphic scenes of violence are not altogether unexpected in any kind of story, especially if they serve a specific purpose, the novel does seem to have a mite too many such scenes than are strictly necessary for the story. Underneath all that violence, though, is a heartrending, five-star tale about the beauty – and the pain – of change and transformation, and above all, the power of stories, and the storyteller.
The Devourers is available on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.