Claire Kohda’s debut is a deeply moving contemplation on love, food, art, and what it means to be alive. It’s also a vampire novel. There was a time in my life when I read every vampire novel (or at last the good ones), watched every vampire film (even the bad ones), and with my friends, tried to be (or at least dress like) what Kohda’s character Lydia (who prefers “Lyd”) is naturally—unique, otherworldly, something different from human. But Lyd is also trying to be as close to a human adult as she can be: away from home for the first time, finding her way in London, she is also desperately hungry. Lyd has placed her vampire Malaysian English mother Julie in a nursing home; her human Japanese father is long dead. She’s finished art school and moved into an art studio where she secretly sleeps—when she sleeps. The suitcase containing her few belongings, including her birth certificate, disappears in the checked luggage at St. Pancras Station.
Lyd struggles to adapt to her new life: her landlord/neighbor Ben, on whom she may or may not have a crush, an internship at the OTA (a/k/a “the Otter”) that is little more than grunt work, and her increasingly desperate hunger. In Margate, where she grew up, Lyd’s mother always made sure they had sufficient pig’s blood, but in an encounter at a London butcher’s, it’s clear to Lyd that’s no longer an option. There are parallels in the novel to regular human coming-of-age stories: how to find a place to live, how to make new friends, how to fall in or out of love, how to find meaning and direction once college is over, how to cope with racism, how to avoid street and workplace harassment, but, of course, all with a twist: Lyd is more vampire than human. Lyd explains she took a year off after art school to care for Julie who’s losing her memory and her teeth, but with the offer of the internship, she arranged a place for Julie at the nursing home. And now Lyd says she’s, “hoping-to-be rather than being—I’m not yet an independent adult; I’m hoping to become one. I’m not yet an artist; I’m hoping to become one.”
Lyd dreams of eating human food—often losing herself in YouTube Korean and Japanese cooking videos on her phone while streaming Buffy the Vampire Slayer on her laptop; fantasizing about sharing meals with her neighbors in a way she never can. She worries about her art, disappointed that her internship isn’t as advertised—instead of shadowing a curator, she’s scrubbing bottles and tolerating her boss Heather’s verbal abuse. She’s also had high hopes of meeting and learning from the gallery’s owner, Gideon, but he is odd and “looks how any normal person might expect a vampire to look.” What he becomes to her later is arguably much worse.
As Lyd meditates on her life, she reveals the oppression of growing up alone with her mother. Lyd’s father, Taiyo Kobayashi, was a successful painter, but she knows little about him. Julie is abusive and projects her self-loathing onto Lyd. Lyd says they didn’t eat pigs’ blood because her mother enjoyed it but because, “‘Pigs are dirty … It’s what your body deserves.’” But Lyd is in love with living things and tells us that, “pigs aren’t naturally dirty. Rather, humans keep pigs in dirty conditions … the filth of the pig is just symptomatic of the sins of the human.” For Julie, their shared vampirism makes them “demons,” following mythology in some Asian cultures where, “there is no reverence for the vampiric monster as there is in the West; most bloodsucking things are women, and their actions—be it sin in a past life, a pact with a demon, a jealous or unstable personality—are all blamed for their monstrous states.” To Julie the two of them are “‘unnatural, disgusting, and ugly … we are just sin.’ … the origin of our kind was a disease, born of power and colonialism.” But Lyd doesn’t believe this and wants to move away from Julie’s self-hatred, instead seeing her own hunger as possibly connected to her art, “I wonder whether the urge I have to make art is the same as the urge to consume and destroy the blankness of a human neck.”
As Lyd decides to see how long she can go without “food,” there are parallels to the attempt at self-control of eating disorders, “It’s not that I don’t value myself, which I’m sure is what a psychologist would say … It’s more that I know that I can survive for ages without eating, and pushing my body in the vague direction of its limits is satisfying … I feel more alive than I ever otherwise do.” As her hunger becomes intense, Lyd is tempted by Ben, helping him clean up a minor wound after a bike accident. Instead of attacking him, though, she attempts a kiss and is rebuffed. Later, she sucks his blood off a towel they used to clean his wound: it’s a disturbing and poignant sign of her loneliness but also gives space for some dark humor, “I couldn’t tell whether I was beginning to like him and wanted to be with him, or whether I was hungry and wanted to eat him.”
Walking through London, rather than seeing herself as a predator, Lyd feels the weight of the male gaze—a man who follows her onto the subway and stares at her while she tries to hide, a group of drunken men who harass her on the street, a creepy stranger in a bookstore, and then there’s her boss, Gideon, who studies her while he thinks she can’t see him and later touches her because he thinks she has no power. Lyd reveals that, “In the past when men have watched me, usually in public places, I’ve wanted to kind of fold my body away.” It’s a terrible and powerless feeling that many women experience, and one that Lyd will have to confront if she is to survive.
As she begins to come to terms with just who and what she is, Lyd makes some decisions about her life and her art. She decides to shift from performance art to painting in an effort to, “see if I can find the shape of myself in whatever I create, to try to identify what I am somehow, separate from my mum’s definitions of me and her superstitions, and in the preferred medium of my human father.” She struggles with her painting, using a puppet of Baba Yaga as inspiration and silent companion while also discussing some of her favorite artists (Amrita Sher-Gil, Bernice Bing, Nina Simonovich-Efimova). It’s in these scenes, as in the scenes focused on detailed descriptions of food, that we see Lyd as deeply engaged in the development of her creative self and also her yearning for human community.
In a crucial scene at the Otter’s exhibition opening, Lyd is made to feel invisible, and she eventually responds by walking out, disgusted by the art world’s inequities and acquisitiveness. She discovers that working at the opening has left her exhausted, “Being in the presence of people looking at art is exhausting … Seeing how little it means to them,” but later, at a show at the RCA with Ben, she feels “a kind of sad nostalgia” for her own art college days. In stark contrast to the earlier show, at the RCA, “There’s an air of reverence around each piece of art.” Lyd and Ben grow close as they talk about art and life. As Lyd falls for Ben and aches for community with other people, she tries to starve the vampire out of herself—it’s deeply disturbing and also very sad. She wants to “feel the connection to the earth and to other people that food lets humans feel; find a partner and marry and live just a small life, with children and pets, growing onions in the garden, brushing caterpillars off them, plucking them from the ground, chopping them into stir-fries.” It’s a lovely dream but one that Lyd can never fulfill.
While there is sadness in her coming to terms with her distance from humanity, Lyd also makes a shift toward power in an important realization about Gideon and what he stands for, “taking is not good for the soul [and Gideon is] a man who has taken a lot … he owns many things. Art from shipwrecks, art from ancient cities … art from around the world … Gideon is rich, and his life is enriched by culture. But his body, still and propped up by an old ornate armchair, looks undernourished.” Lyd wants a different relationship to art and to life, she wants to make her own art and although she yearns for human community, she must learn to experience life in the best way she can, by devouring it.