Six Word Summary: Epicurean ophthalmologist combines interests, eats eyeballs
I rate it: 6/10
Dr. Amadeus Kaine is one of the world’s leading eye surgeons. He is also a member of an elite epicurean club that delights in cooking and eating obscure, often disgusting dishes, such as sea slugs in brandy. Then, during a visit to a (fictional) Asian country to treat its despot ruler, Dr. Kaine is treated to an exotic pastry that is simply the best thing he has ever put into his mouth. You’ve probably already guessed where this is going.
Yup, the pastry is made of human eyes, taken from the prisoners of the despot. After his initial horror fades, Dr. K finds himself completely obsessed with the idea of getting more eyes to eat. It doesn’t help his addiction that this snack also appears to rejuvenate the human body and fires up the engines of the mind almost like a miracle drug. In the backdrop rages an eye disease that is causing people to go blind, even as doctors led by Amadeus Kaine race to find a cure.
What I liked most about this book was Tahir Shah’s depiction of addiction and the insanity associated with it. Dr. Kaine loses all sense of self, all sense of human decency as his desire to eat human parts takes control over him. He loses his capacity to empathize altogether. Even as he researches to find a way to prevent or cure an invincible disease, he sees his patients not as people but as eyes. The story is well written, well paced, gripping. As a thriller, it does very well.
What disappointed me was the obviousness, in-your-face nature of the horror. Cannibalism is a sort of shortcut to horror, because it really shocks people even when there is no logical reason to be shocked. The crime here is the murder, but it is what the murderer does with the remains of his victims that turn him in your eyes from a common or garden killer to a monster. What I’m trying to say is, books in the horror and thriller genre today latch on to the most obvious, most easy spooks, such as cannibalism and child torture. I find myself craving something more subtle, less formulaic. I also wonder why writers so often associate cannibalism with the medical sciences, as though prolonged exposure to human body parts will only give you a heightened sense of their deliciousness. I sometimes think of asking my friend, gynecologist and obstetrician Dr. Sweta Singh, if she has ever craved eating a baby, but I dare not, for fear of what her answer might be.
Tahir Shah, in the foreword to the book, requests of the reader a suspension of disbelief. Which is reasonable, if you are saying “This book is fantasy so please don’t ask how broomsticks can fly” but NOT if you are saying “I wanted to write about a very specific branch of science but did not want to do any research or pay somebody to do research for me, so please pretend all this could happen even if they can’t and please do not ask questions.” Most annoying of the questions that came up were:
1. Dr. K is a renowned eye surgeon, getting eyes from various hospitals and eye banks in the name of research should have been the easiest thing in the world for him. Why did he have to start killing people?
2. The writer makes up an explanation that the chemicals in the eye affect the human taste buds and body tremendously. Then his protagonist discovers that green eyes are way taster and give a far stronger kick than any other eye color. Erm… green eyes are green because of their pigmentation, not because they are chemically different from other eyes. This is very like saying brown goats taste far better than black goats.
3. If eyes are such a superfood, why isn’t the central Asian despot who eats fresh eyes every day a superman? Why does he get eye infection, and how is he stupid enough to let insurgents catch and kill him?
These questions aren’t mine alone, I narrated the story to the 10 year old child of a friend and he too was exasperated by the suspension of disbelief factor. An otherwise racy and gripping novel of murder and depravity, hindered by nagging questions and lack of a credible basis.
-Amritorupa “green eyed monster” Kanjilal