I Am Dust
Orenda Books, 16 April 2020
Available as: PB, 344pp, e
Read as: Advance review copy PB
I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a free advance copy of I Am Dust to consider for review.
Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return...
There are books I read for review because they catch my eye and I think they might interest.
There are books I read for review because I've read the author before and I think I'll like them.
Then... then there are Louise Beech books - which means I know I'll be in for a good time (if a heart-wringing, emotionally involving one).
I Am Dust is, of course, no exception. Operating on two parallel timelines, we see Chloe, a thirtysomething adult, working as an usher at the Dean Wilson theatre in Hull in 2019. We also see Chloe, with her friends Jess and Ryan, rehearsing in the summer of 2005 for a youth theatre production of Macbeth - and dabbling with a Ouija board.
In 2019, the Dean Wilson is preparing for a revival of the iconic musical Dust, considered cursed by some since the lead actress was killed during its premiere run 20 years before at the same theatre. The murder was never solved, and understandably, speculation runs wild - especially Eoin the part of Chloe's mate Chester.
In 2005, relations between the three friends become more and more intense. Chloe fancies Jess. Jess has eyes only for Ryan. Ryan - well, Ryan is basically in love with himself. The instigator of the Ouija sessions, which take place after hours on the Macbeth stage - among the witches props, royal robes and daggers of the Scottish Play - Ryan has some objective of his own. There is something he wants, something he knows, something he needs. Chloe has always considered herself sensitive in these matters - what might the pressure of the sessions drive her to?
I loved the awkward, triangular relationship between Chloe, Jess and Ryan, the balance always shifting in response to the lurching dynamics of the teenagers, and to external pressures. Beech writes, I think, with great insight when she draws these characters: they ring true, and one worries for them - not only in 2005, but in the future, where Chloe seems alone. What has become of Jess and Ryan?
What, for that matter, has become of Chloe? Part of the lure of this book is the slow drip of revelation about her life then, and now. I don't want to spoil it, so I won't say a lot, but it's clear that she has been deeply affected by something. She has been self-harming. She can't remember all of what went before - so we as readers are in some ways ahead of her when strange things start to happen at the theatre. There's a tension hanging over this book, a genuine sense of menace, whether from the supernatural or from the unresolved dynamics of fourteen years ago. It's exacerbated, somehow, by the way Chloe seems to stand in the spotlight - her mum and dad appear and are mentioned, but never named. She seems to have answers but not to know them, if that makes sense.
And all the while she is weaving her own story, writing a script, that seems both a commentary on what she's been through and a way out of her own life.
I just loved this brooding, claustrophobic novel. In Beech's last, Call Me Star Girl, most of the action during police during one torrid night at a local radio station (mentioned briefly at the start of I Am Dust). Here it's more spread out, the action taking place over several months in each timeline, and the locations are less constrained physically but - as theatres - perhaps even more freighted with hopes, dreams and fears: dangerous spaces, which have to be treated with care, according to established rules (like never mentioning the name of the Scottish Play). Ryan lays down rules for the Ouija sessions too, but the three friends don't pay much heed to them and there's a sense from the start of them playing with fire...
I Am Dust is at the same time a sensitive character study, a heart-stopping, spooky tale and a scorching page turner that will have you up past midnight to complete it (if you're brave enough).
For more information about the book see the publisher's webpage here. If you haven't read anything by Louise before (WHY?) check out my reviews of The Mountain in my Shoe, Maria in the Moon, The Lion Tamer who Lost, and Call me Star Girl.
If you can buy I am Dust from your local bookshop - many are now operating mail order - please do, they need as much support as possible right now. Alternatively, Hive Books are now taking orders again, or you can buy from Blackwell's, Foyle's, Waterstones or Amazon.