In the novel, an Indian-American woman lives with the knowledge that her mother likely became pregnant when she was gang-raped in India during her parents’ second honeymoon. The research Cunningham did to fill in the parents’ background revealed ever-more horrific acts. All were regularly used to subdue women through fear.
While a man’s affairs might be overlooked, a woman who steps outside the rigid system might be murdered in honor killings. If a woman’s family wasn’t wealthy enough to pay a high dowry, the bride might be doused with kerosene and burned alive to release the groom from the upcoming marriage. And if a husband found his wife not subservient enough, not beautiful enough or merely grew tired of her, he might arrange for her death and blame it on an accident.
In the novel, the mother never found justice. India’s courts are notoriously slow, especially with cases concerning violence against women. The attempted suicide of a gang-rape victim in Ahmedabad, Gujarat to protest the years-long delay in her own case further reflect the novel’s basis in reality.
When Cunningham began receiving feedback on the early drafts, readers were reluctant to believe that such horrifying violence could be so freely wielded in a modern society. The brutal gang-rape and murder of a young physiotherapy student on a moving bus in Delhi proves that the violence continues.
Originally Cunningham used the plot point as an entry point to discuss rape and violence against women in America. Since her novel was released late last year, though, she’s found her book being discussed in terms of India’s struggle to modernize its values and fully integrate women.
“It’s easy to condemn violence when it’s perpetuated in a different country,” the author says. “It’s not so easy to recognize that American women sometimes face the same level of violence right here at home.”
He Drinks Poison follows an Indian-American FBI agent as she tracks a prolific serial killer. The violence perpetuated against the killer’s victims mirrors the violence her mother suffered. As Priya deals with her past, she begins to access the power of Kali. The dark goddess is both a fearsome warrior and a nurturing mother. Only when Priya integrates those same qualities can she triumph against the killer.
“He Drinks Poison ranks among the great thrillers of all time,” says Pamela King Cable, author of Televenge, Library Journal’s top pick for 2012. “Through sparkling prose, the story sparks fury and tears. It is impossible to read this book unmoved.”
Cable’s first novel deals with the darkness found even among those who are considered intensely spiritual. She calls Cunningham’s work “disturbing yet fascinating.”
“Using metaphors and visions from Indian mythology as a framing device,” says Martin Smith, President of Pencil Point Mountain, “it becomes not just the tale of a monstrously brilliant serial killer pursued by a dogged FBI agent dealing with her own past but a battle in the ongoing war between Good and Evil.”
Cunningham notes that so long as women are denied their rights, the war will continue. The headlines and the novel both call on people worldwide to step up and speak for those who live every day in fear.
He Drinks Poison was shortlisted for the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner award before being picked up by Sun Dogs Creations. The creation of the novel was supported by residencies and grants from the prestigious Vermont Studio Center and Wildacres, an arts and humanities center. The e-book is available from all major distributors like Amazon, iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo. Additional outlets include Baker & Taylor, Copia, Gardner and eBookPie.
The author’s other novels include the award-winning Message Stick. Gabriel Branch, a biracial Aborigine, faces a powerful shaman in the Australian outback to discover the truth about his best friend’s disappearance. The work won two national awards that ranked Cunningham alongside Pulitzer Prize winning authors like William Styron and Horton Foote.
More information on her first novel and the companion book of essays, Seven Sisters: Spiritual Messages from Aboriginal Australia, can be found at www.LaineCunningham.com. Facebook members can follow the latest on He Drinks Poison and the battle for women’s rights worldwide at www.Facebook.com/