This is a much-anticipated debut novel from a writer who got a lot of attention for her short story collection Battleborn, published in 2012.
Desert sands have laid waste to the south-west of America. Las Vegas is buried. California – and anyone still there – is stranded. Any way out is severely restricted. But Luz and Ray are not leaving. They survive on water rations, black market fruit and each other’s need. Luz needs Ray, and Ray must be needed. But then they cross paths with a mysterious child, and the thirst for a better future begins. It’s said there’s a man on the edge of the Dune Sea. He leads a camp of believers. He can find water. Venturing into this dry heart of darkness, Luz thinks she has found their saviour. For the will to survive taps hidden powers; and the needed, and the needy, will exploit it.
This literary apocalyptic, near-future scenario is of a broken, desiccated California and two people struggling to fit into the tatters of civilisation. Ray and Luz are drifting through the remnants of other lives as they squat in the mansion of a former starlet, using her belongings as they see fit. That Watkins can write is apparent from the first line. Her prose is extraordinary and she has the capability to push boundaries and take her readers with her to a heightened vision of this desert world.
While the people flail around, trying to fit into this brutal new environment, the main protagonist in this book is the setting. The huge, super-dune called the Amargosa that is sprawling out of the Mojave Desert and swallowing everything in its way has a forest of stories, legends and conspiracy theories sprouting up around it. When Watkins gets it right – such as Ray’s trek with heat-seared eyes, the writing is poetic, apt and astonishing. During a chilly January night, I felt and tasted the sweat, gritty dust and sweltering heat.
But, there is an unevenness throughout that prevents this thought-provoking book from becoming a great novel. While the literary genre does allow for a slower pace and more experimentation with story structure, all too often, the descriptions are a page or two too long; minor characters suddenly take centre stage, distorting the narrative arc; and character viewpoint goes completely haywire, as in the runup to Ray’s beating. Technical flaws such as these graunched, given how much is triumphantly successful about this offering.
Watkins gives us a mesmerising insight of Ray and Luz’s relationship, which kept me caring about both of them, even as they lurched from one self inflicted crisis to another – and I certainly didn’t see the ending coming. I’m still undecided whether I think it works or not. However, while I’m not sure I enjoyed Gold, Fame, Citrus, I’m very glad I read it and if your tastes run to apocalyptic scenarios, then track this one down. I’ll guarantee you’ll remember it.
My ARC ebook was supplied by Netgalley via the publisher, in return for an honest review.