Claire Kohda’s debut novel Woman, Eating takes on one of the great horror tropes, vampirism, and tries to find some new relevance in it.
Lydia is a young artist and the daughter of Malaysian and Japanese parents who, when the book opens, is striking out on her own in London. She has found a small studio and is about to start an internship at a prestigious gallery. But Lydia is also a vampire so has slightly more to contend with than her fellow millennials. Not only that but, as she was taught by her vampiric mother, Lydia has sworn off human blood. While the two had a constant supply of pigs blood when they lived together, Lydia has a hard time sourcing sustenance on her own in the big city. Lydia dreams of being able to eat real food but finds herself having to get by on dead animals that she finds.
When the vampirism is stripped away, Woman, Eating is at its heart a millennial coming of age story. Lydia is learning what it is like to live on her own in the big city. She has to deal with being at the bottom of the pile at work, sexual harassment, unrequited love and a broken heart. But she also finds her own artistic voice, makes connections with her fellow artists and finds herself inspired to paint again. At the same time, Lydia has to organise care for her ageing mother, who has been put into a home as her mind deteriorates.
Much like many other vampire tales, Lydia’s vampirism is not only a debilitating but empowering condition that she deals with but also used an extended metaphor. In the story of her mother, it is used as an extension of imperialism (her mother is turned into a vampire by a British colonist in Malaysia). For Lydia it accentuates her alienation from her peers but also expresses as a constant hunger, a feeling of exclusion and a longing to experience some of the things they experience. In exploring the relationship then between Lydia and her mother, Kohda is also able to explore the experience of children of immigrants.
Woman, Eating is an assured first novel. It is easy to imagine the book being almost the same without Lydia being a vampire, rather just an awkward, naïve young woman learning how to live in the world. But, like many vampire tales Kohda successfully uses her premise to dig a little deeper into the themes she wants to explore.