What’s it all about?:
In a parched southern California of the near future, Luz, once the poster child for the country’s conservation movement, and Ray, an army deserter turned surfer, are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion. Most “Mojavs,” prevented by armed vigilantes from freely crossing borders to lusher regions, have allowed themselves to be evacuated to encampments in the east. Holdouts like Ray and Luz subsist on rationed cola and water, and whatever they can loot, scavenge, and improvise.
For the moment, the couple’s fragile love, which somehow blooms in this arid place, seems enough. But when they cross paths with a mysterious child, the thirst for a better future begins.
Immensely moving, profoundly disquieting, and mind-blowingly original, Watkins’s novel explores the myths we believe about others and tell about ourselves, the double-edged power of our most cherished relationships, and the shape of hope in a precarious future that may be our own.
What did I think?:
I was sent a copy of Gold Fame Citrus by the lovely people that run the Real Readers review scheme who are also responsible for the fabulous magazine that I subscribe to, New Books Magazine and the website Nudge.com. Many thanks to them as this has proved not only an interesting book to read but also one incredibly tricky to review due to my mixed feelings on it. Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut novel falls essentially in the dystopian genre but in reality, is so much more. Set in California in the not too distant future, the author paints a picture of a completely dry and barren landscape where all sources of water have disappeared and in its place reveals a desert wilderness, dwarfed by tremendous sand dunes that bury and destroy everything they roll over.
The majority of the previous dwellers have been packed onto buses heading eastwards apart from a brave few who exist on ration cola and crackers from the black market as they try to figure out what to do next. This is the situation that Luz and her boyfriend Ray, a former soldier with a murky past, find themselves in. At first, they are happy to remain in an abandoned mansion just trying to get through each day but then they meet a young girl called Ig. She is being “looked after” by a group of drug addicts but Luz cannot morally stand by and do nothing and fearing for her safety they spirit her away to look after her themselves.
Luz and Ray have now found another reason to survive in baby Ig and they both decide to head eastwards, in search of a better life for their new daughter. Before long, in dangerously hot temperatures, things start to go terribly wrong for the trio. First Ray disappears, then Luz and Ig who are close to death’s door themselves are “saved,” by a group of people headed by a charismatic leader who promises a better life for all that follow him. Luz is desperately grateful for his assistance and soon falls under his spell which could have devastating consequences, especially when a familiar face returns.
When I first read the synopsis of this book it sounded like a perfect and intriguing read. Unfortunately, that was not quite what I found. So, the good things (of which there were many!) – the prose was absolutely stunning. I mean, it is clear that this author can write damned well and her use of vocabulary is poetic without ever seeming over-done:
“We fill our homes with macabre altars to the live things we’ve murdered—the floral print of the twin mattress in her childhood bedroom, stripped of its sheets when she soiled them; ferns on throw pillows coated in formaldehyde; poppies on petrochemical dinner plates; boxes and bags of bulk pulpstuffs emblazoned with plant imagery the way milk cartons are emblazoned with children. A rock on a window ledge, cut flowers stabbed in a vase, wreath of sprigs nailed to the front door—every house a mausoleum, every house a wax museum.”
Just gorgeous! I can however, see how this may distance some other readers who are not fans of flowery prose but for me it gave the narrative a vibrance and energy that made it possible to picture the somewhat alien surroundings with ease. At times, there was an almost dream-like quality to the writing and, as a result, it’s not exactly what you would call a fast-paced novel which again, could irk some readers but personally, I found the action picked up slightly when Luz met the cult leader, Levi with all the drama that entails. My favourite part of all had to be the fantastical bestiary of all the animals in the desert which is written by Levi and presented in a pamphlet to Luz, the details of which are also provided in full glorious detail to the reader.
Anyone else want The Stiltwalker Tortoise to be real?! For sure, it’s definitive evidence of a vivid imagination that knows no bounds and was greatly appreciated by this animal fanatic. I have to admit to flipping through the book when I received it and when I noticed these illustrated pages just over halfway through I immediately had to sit down and read them in their entirety before starting the novel from the usual place i.e. the beginning!
For these reasons, there is a lot that is positive about this original and in some points, captivating novel but there were also various chunks that led to me giving the rating I have. At times, I did feel a little overwhelmed with all the information I was being given and this led to it being slightly confusing and occasionally vague at the same time. I felt fairly muddled throughout as I struggled to come to terms with what exactly had happened to the world and why, which was never really explained in as much detail as I would have liked. The dream-like nature of the writing which I mentioned earlier, while obviously beautiful, also served to make the novel a bit clunky at times and difficult to absorb and enjoy fully.
My biggest bugbear however had to be the character of Luz. She was flawed and vulnerable which should have made her more accessible and easier to relate too but I found myself becoming quite annoyed with her, especially with her reliance on men to become her white knight and to make her life complete. Saying all this, if you can negotiate a few tiny obstacles and enjoy the magic that comes from reading some alluring writing you should definitely give this book a shot.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):