Book Review: We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Literary
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Scribner (September 6, 2016)
Length: 320 pages
So, I’ve never seen Cannibal Holocaust. Its huge cult following and legacy as a definitive film in the exploitation horror genre notwithstanding, I already know that kind of movie is not my bag, and my queasiness from viewing its Wikipedia page alone is confirmation enough of that. And yet, when I saw the description of this book I was immediately intrigued, especially by the part about the story being inspired by the true events surrounding the making of the film. If you aren’t familiar with the controversy there, when Cannibal Holocaust came out in the early 80s it achieved massive notoriety for its gruesome and violent content, but also when it came to light that there were unsavory practices on set that proved quite disturbing.
We Eat Our Own is essentially the novelized incarnation of that story. It tells of an unnamed struggling actor, only referred to as his on-screen name “Richard”, getting a call from his agent out of the blue about a once in a lifetime opportunity—an Italian art film director is in need of a new lead because his original actor quit right on the tarmac after seeing the script. This could be the big break “Richard” needs, but the catch is, he’ll need to pack up and leave right this instant. The rest of the crew are already shooting in the Amazon rainforest, and production is already behind schedule and over-budget. The plane to Bogotá leaves from the airport in six hours; just be on it.
Not long after “Richard” arrives on set though, he wonders if he’s made a mistake. The director is a nutcase, who seems to be making things up as he goes along. Many of his methods are unorthodox and unethical, especially when it comes to the treatment of animals on set as well as his attitudes towards the native extras. There is no script, not enough set materials, and hardly any safety. They’re in the middle of nowhere far from civilization, in an area made unstable by the activity of the drug cartels and M-19 guerilla fighters. The jungle itself is oppressive, the air hot and wet, the river brown and soupy and full of parasites. Despite the hours of acting classes and theater school, nothing could have prepared our main character for any of this.
For me, this book was a total surprise, but I’m still trying to decide whether it was a positive or negative one. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what I expected beyond having glimpsed a description of the style as being “literary horror”, but it’s probably safe to say the book turned out even more artsy than I’d anticipated. The prose is innovative and ambitious, bordering almost on experimental. For instance, the author uses a number of unconventional literary devices including the second person narrative for “Richard’s” chapters, often emphasizing just how far out of his depth he is by starting the character’s sections with “Here’s what you don’t know…”, while of course empowering the reader because we are afforded the luxury of seeing the whole picture. As well, we bounce between points-of-view, making the narrative as a whole feel somewhat disjointed and choppy. Dialogue is also presented without the traditional quotation marks, and tends to run together.
The real kicker though, is that while I could grasp the overall gist of what the author was attempting to do, the unusual style sadly had the effect of alienating the reader, taking a lot away from the impact she was hoping to convey. The philosophy and social commentary also gets lost in all the muddled narratives and side plots, and the problem is compounded when none of the characters are all that likeable (though in all fairness, this is by design) or sympathetic enough for me to care about them. Wilson has created an incredible thing here, and it’s especially impressive for a debut novel…but still, something felt missing.
I’ve been pondering how to put my feelings into words, and in the end I think it amounts to this: We Eat Are Own is a book that will be more appreciated for its bold structure and its artistry, rather than for its story or ideas. While the original inspiration behind it is fascinating—and I think Cannibal Holocaust enthusiasts will get a kick out of it—I just never felt connected to the narrative on a level beyond, “Hey, this is a pretty neat premise for a book.” Fans of literary fiction will probably enjoy the thematic parallels to classics like Heart of Darkness and other works that explore the savagery and moral confusion deep within the human condition. Readers of more traditional horror on the other hand, though, are likely better off looking elsewhere.