Werewolves get their day in the sun
By Blood We Live By Glen Duncan Text Publishing, 473pp, $29.99 GLEN Duncan’s new book completes the trilogy that began with The Last Werewolf (2011), featuring the depressed, erudite monster Jake Marlowe. When By Blood We Live begins, werewolf Talulla Demetriou, the main character in the second book, Talulla Rising (2012), is living in a fragile state of domestic harmony, reunited with her two werewolf babies and her lover, Walker. But she has become obsessed with Remshi, the ancient vampire who once kidnapped her son, and decides to seek him out.
Remshi is an equal protagonist in the novel: he and Talulla take turns narrating the story, each cataloguing their strange longing for and dreams about the other, while action-packed murder and mayhem happens all around.
For some reason, the werewolf has not achieved the heights of mass popularity enjoyed in recent times by its distant relatives, the dumb apocalyptic zombie and sexy vampire. The werewolf in animal form is Mr Hyde — all animal, all instinct — to the vampire’s eternally cool Dr Jekyll. The idea of a divided self, human and inhuman, is what’s interesting to Duncan, and the idea a person could not only bear the presence of the monster within, but exult in it.
April 5-6, 2014
Duncan’s werewolves do not kill with the reluctance or mercy of a thoughtful vampire. They instead derive savage pleasure from the suffering of their victims: “It’s only the best for us if it’s the worst for them,” Talulla admits.
But Talulla and the other werewolves act out their violent urges only at the irresistible command of “the Curse”, and Duncan offers a contrast with those human beings who have no such excuse for their actions. Pornographers who delight in degrading women, men who rape girls, mothers who offer their children as victims: these are the real monsters, Duncan suggests, and they live among us.
In one subplot, a young woman, Justine, uses her new vampire powers to exact revenge on the sadistic men who abused her as a child, but must suffer the horror of incorporating all their memories and experiences when she drinks their blood. Each book in the trilogy has been saturated with sex, but By Blood We Live feels more disturbingly suffused with sexual violence against women, invoked as an icon of human cruelty and imagined in creepily lurid detail.
In an aside to the reader, Remshi performs his own embarrassment at being involved in such a conventional genre story: “Yes. I’m afraid there’s a book of prophecies. I know. I can only apologise.” Duncan is prone to bludgeoning readers with literary references as if anxious to prove the novel’s intellectual worth: these might be monsters, but they are well-read, philosophical ones, unafraid to refer to Sylvia Plath or Marcel Proust at the slightest provocation.
Remshi, Talulla and others become fixated on existential questions, and wonder obsessively if the coincidences and patterns they see everywhere indicate there is “a supernatural scheme of things. It’s “as if life’s like a stupid f..king movie or a stupid f..king book”, Justine says. All the characters make some version of this observation, which has some appealing postmodern, self-conscious irony, but becomes strained with each repetition.
Justine turns out to be right, in a surreal, literal sense: Remshi’s life, to his dismay, gradually turns into a parallel version of Robert Browning’s bleak poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, as though the author’s own compulsive habits of allusion have turned toxic for his characters.
It is disappointing that the story itself, about which all these characters are so intriguingly self-aware, is not plotted with more of the careful design and intention that is ascribed to destiny, but is instead somewhat incoherent and too often predictable.
At his strongest, Duncan writes with wit, insight and exuberant style, although there’s a sameness to the voices of the different narrators: it does seem strange that 40,000 years of living the cosmopolitan bachelor vampire life would produce more or less the same kind of wisecracking, arch tone as that of a young werewolf woman.
But some of the best passages evoke the sparkling bravura and energetic rhythm of Martin Amis’s early novels — viewing the “shocking, perfect contrast” of a woman vampire’s “cold white skin and warm red mouth”, Remshi tell us, “I thought: Beauty just keeps coming into the world and passing away, coming in and passing away. You can’t blame beauty. Beauty doesn’t know what else to do.” Kirsten Tranter is the author of the novels The Legacy and A Common Loss.