Here’s my review for THE DIVINITY STUDENT, our October group read in the Weird Fiction Group on Goodreads!
I didn’t mention all the little things I liked about this book, but this is a kind of overview. It’s a magical realist, Gothic fantastic book about (as far as I can tell) words – spoken, written, invented, lost, new, old, forbidden, forgotten, changing – and obsession, addiction, and human transcendence (but this last one is ambiguous and seems to come at the cost of a loss of selfhood).
Do you have a foundational ‘canon’ of texts that give/gave you life, or that have shaped you into the person you are today?
A weird love affair with words
This book feels on some levels like a deep love affair with words and texts and language, although it’s hard to tell if the odd moments of fragmented sentences and full stops in odd places are deliberate or just a mistake in the edition I read.
The sentences can be up to a paragraph long, and the “less is more” adage hasn’t bothered Cisco much, so if spare poetic prose is your thing, this may not be to your taste.
I found it the book equivalent of watching an aquarium: the plot is simple and kicks in about halfway through, but you don’t need to know (or understand) what’s going on to enjoy the immersion, and in some ways concentrating too hard on it is going to spoil it. It was the perfect thing to read on the train home after work and let it trigger random thoughts about my own relationship with words & texts, things I don’t get much time to think about these days…
The book itself centres the nameless Divinity Student, struck by lightning in a storm in Ch 1 & brought back to life by eldritch creatures who open him up and stuff him full of ancient texts. He’s re-birthed as a Weird Golem type person, and sent off to San Veneficio to become a word-finder. He is meant to be undercover and is trying to recover a lost catalogue of forbidden (?) words, the Eclogue, destroyed & lost.
He learns how to enter the minds of dead creatures via a memorable wtf moment with magic & formaldehyde, and demonic cars try to stop him in a man versus machine sub-plot.
As the plot goes, that’s all of it, but the plot itself isn’t really the point of the book and it’s not really possible to “spoil” it in the traditional sense, because … there’s nothing to spoil?!
It’s very fantastical, abstract, full of magical realism techniques like the way ‘reality’, ‘visions’ & ‘dreams’ are mashed together seamlessly so that those categories break down and you’re never sure what’s ‘real’ and what isn’t. It’s a story that made me think mainly about obsession with texts & words – sacred texts, in particular – and of being stuffed full of other people’s canonical texts, other people’s language, and struggling to find words and a voice of my own.
Miss Woodwind, the master word finder, has her own voice and that’s why she’s so good at finding other people’s words… she wants the Divinity Student to drink some water (a cleansing, purifying, refreshing thing, with associations of forward movement etc) but he wants to drink/inhale atomised formaldehyde (preservative fluid) and stagnate in the memories of the dead and re-live their texts and words instead.
I suppose it left me with a feeling that there were so many layers to this that one sitting wouldn’t be enough to get all of them. The tree spirits and their porcelain mouths, the folkloric elements, the monitor lizards and their reflective eyes like stars in the desert… there’s some gorgeous imagery here that I really enjoyed.
I guess the main questions I’m left with (apart from “what did I just read? What happened? What’s going on?”) are:
-how do you deal with being stuffed with other people’s views of “canonical” texts?
-Which texts were foundational for me, that are now part of my cultural, emotional, psychological makeup? Do I need to address/dismantle some of this?
-How do you find your own voice if you’re obsessed with other people’s?
-What words/texts give me “life”? Are they mine, as in, did I choose them, or were they given to me? Is that necessarily bad?
I liked the dreamlike, abstracted wandering through these types of questions and the edge-of-madness themes that come from following an obsessive character without a name or a voice of his own.
I definitely see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I’m giving it 4 stars anyway.