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Devoured by Anna Mackmin. A book review by César Castañeda

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

Anna Mackmin’s tragic and satiric novel Devoured follows a 12-year-old girl’s coming of age in a 70s hippy commune in Norfolk. The protagonist, whose name we only discover near the end of the book, has an unusual upbringing in Swallow’s Farmhouse, where she lives with her parents, her sister Star, a group of intellectual and outlandish commune dwellers, a dog named Jessie and other animals. What appears to be an idyllic, caring and loving community proves to be a façade for selfish and reckless behaviour. Throughout the novel the protagonist deals with house chores such as cooking for the whole commune or coping with their mental breakdowns, since no one can be bothered to do it, Meanwhile, she is also entering puberty and starts discovering her sexual desires.

The story is narrated by the protagonist and she addresses herself as ‘you’, making it somewhat difficult to understand initially but, as the novel progresses, the same technique enables the reader to get to know the character’s personality. The whole narration is marked by a series of broken sentences and ellipses, which are in tune with the fragmented household structure, where everyone seems to behave as they please. Although she appears very mature for her age, sometimes the lack of contact with the outside world gives her naivety away, especially when it comes to sexuality and grown-ups:

‘How could you have been so childish? Sleep with him means sex. You understand about sex, you have known about sex all your life. We have no secrets. Of course you know it’s for making babies and love and everything and you also know it’s something sometimes happens because adults are complex and have complex needs and you will understand fully when you’re an adult but why did you not hear them when they said ‘sleep with’ over and over? They have tricked you’

The protagonist has a very strong bond with her sister, Star, who has selective mutism and does not speak for the most part of the novel. They do not need to have conversations to understand and support each other in this eccentric community. Their mum is agoraphobic and their dad suffers from depression episodes and gets drunk. In the parents’ effort to treat their two daughters as adults from an early age, they sometimes use very abusive language: ‘Star you fucking idiot. Why the hell didn’t you come and find me?’

The commune seems to show the hypocrisy of some people who think of themselves as idealists, morally superior and not subjugated to society’s norms, but who end up behaving like the rest. Although they are intellectuals who have decided to go against the establishment and live together, away from urban centres, most of the characters are selfish and stubborn. This is presented with a mixture of dark humour and satire to the reader, although it is ultimately tragic. The protagonist has to deal particularly with Bryan, or Hairy Dolly as she calls him, a commune dweller whose behaviour gives a stronger and clearer meaning to the book’s title.

Although somewhat challenging at the beginning, Devoured is an interesting and thought-provoking reading which will hook the reader up with the main characters of the two girls and their fate.

César Castañeda

Devoured is published by Propolis Books

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