May 19, 2014

Reading in Tandem: "The Lost," by Sarah Beth Durst

It's bits of ephemera -- a favorite song that popped into your head like a mini-book soundtrack, who you think would be best as the lead if they ever turned it into a movie, your fervent hope that they never, ever, turn it into a movie -- things like that. It's the kind of stuff we talked about at grad school, the kind of oh-em-gosh-you've-gotta-read-this, hot-off-the-press, immediate bookish nerdery that we pass back and forth like narrative cells in our story-loving bloodstreams. This isn't a review, as much as a read between friends.

Sometimes, our views will be more reader-response than writer-wise. Sometimes we won't agree, or have the same take on things. While we'll do our best to avoid it, sometimes, we may have spoilers. Sometimes you'll wonder why on earth we wasted our time on a particular book - and sometimes, probably, so will we. Regardless, every once in awhile, we'll get down to it:

Two writers. Two readers.

One book.

Reading in Tandem.

It was only meant to be a brief detour. But then Lauren finds herself trapped in a town called Lost on the edge of a desert, filled with things abandoned, broken and thrown away. And when she tries to escape, impassible dust storms and something unexplainable lead her back to Lost again and again. The residents she meets there tell her she's going to have to figure out just what she's missing, and what she's running from, before she can leave. So now Lauren's on a new search for a purpose and a destiny. And maybe, just maybe, she'll be found.

Against the backdrop of this desolate and mystical town, Sarah Beth Durst writes an arresting, fantastical novel of one woman's impossible journey and her quest to find her fate.

Tanita: Welcome to another Reading in Tandem... aaaand, it's only taken us a whole year to do this again. Way to go, us! Also, do you realize we did our LAST tandem read on a Sarah Beth Durst book? What is up with that???

Sarah (aquafortis): I don't know what's up with that, other than the fact that she writes intriguing, utterly unique books that we both find incredibly interesting to discuss. (If you want to read our tandem review of Sarah Beth Durst's Conjured, click here.)

Right--on with the show! Tanita...give us a little background on how THE LOST is a bit different from Durst's previous work for young adults.

TSD: Welp, for one thing it's... not for young adults. Not specifically, anyway. Isn't that ironic? A number of popular adult fiction writers have stampeded for the super-lucrative young adult market, but ...leave it to Sarah Beth Durst to decide to start writing for adults. Or, to put it more correctly, she's now being marketed to adults, anyway, and just writing. I think this book is a perfectly reasonable crossover.

AF:  Yes! I wondered that myself--I would love to know whether Sarah Beth Durst set out to write a book for an older or a crossover audience, or not. We'll be asking her in our upcoming interview, and hopefully we'll find out the answer, and a bit more about what it was like writing an adult character vs. a YA character.

TSD: Yeah - I'd like that; I have some Opinions about whether or not I could ever write for adults, so I'll be interested in getting her take. Anyway -- so, I went into THE LOST not quite remembering that it wasn't for young adults, but I was reminded almost immediately. It's clear early on in the first chapter, through the self-description of the protagonist, that she's not just out of high school. She's twenty-seven. A youngish adult -- well out of college, even -- and, well out of everything, from the sound of it. Well out of patience, out of time, out of ...her mind.

Or, is she????

AF: Cue dramatic flourish: Dum-dum-DUUUUUM.

When we join protagonist Lauren Chase at the beginning of the story, she's already disconnected, already feels like a character lacking something critical and tangible. She is feeling...well, that early adulthood lost-ness that affects so many of us from time to time. She feels lost, so she becomes literally lost. She finds Lost. But what is it she's actually found?

TSD: First impressions: this book was not at all what I expected. NOT. AT. ALL.

AF: Me, either!  I don't know what I was expecting, or if I had expectations. I looked back at the jacket copy to see if the issue is that I had been led in a different direction by the blurb, but no--it's perfectly accurate and descriptive and evocative and intriguing. It's just that the book is SO MUCH MORE than can be encapsulated in a quick description.

TSD:I saw that it was a book put out by Harlequin, which, admittedly, gave me a few preconceived notions... because, you know, Harlequin. That Novel in your Mom's/grandma's/best friend bookshelf's when you were twelve. Harlequin is THE NAME for romance, and has been for years and years and years.

But, Harlequin TODAY is not all super-feels, romancey stuff -- INSIDE OUT and OUTSIDE IN, by Maria V. Snyder is published by Harlequin Teen, and it was about space and exploration, not so much the boy/girl/feels thing; Ann Aguire's ENCLAVE series, which is high-concept, post-apocalyptic survivalist-adventure, is published by Harlequin's LUNA imprint, and Julie Kagawa has a few books published by Harlequin's LUNA imprint as well (though hers tend to be fairly dreamy, "romantical" Elf King/Vampire/Hero and Tragic Pretty Girl types). Still, though - my first impression, on seeing the publisher was, "Oh. This is going to be Sarah Beth does romance." To which I can now say, Mmmmm, noooo.... and No. Period. But, I can say, it's "Sarah Beth does love, which isn't always romantic, but which is very dear, and precious, too." It's a fine and important distinction, and it's conceptually important to the book. We love people and things, but we often lose sight of what is of actual importance... if we lost everything that made us ourselves, with what would we be left? Can we find what defines us?

AF: I have to admit, it took me a few chapters to really get engrossed in the story, and I think that's because I wasn't sure what to make of it. For a story with many dramatic family and personal events, and much internal turmoil, as well as strange, inexplicable goings-on, it is remarkably contemplative in its overall feel, particularly in the early chapters. There's a sense of stasis, of stuckness, in Lauren's situation in Lost, which parallels her feelings about her real life. But that feeling changes as the book progresses; slowly, imperceptibly, there's a building sense of worry, of menace, of mistrust and fear, but also of wonder and magic.

TSD:I like the word "stuckness," here. There's just so MUCH in which to be stuck, so many sticking points for our minds to grapple with - the Void, which is the epicenter of this ginormous and horrifying dust storm, the Finder - who we can't tell is good or bad, The Missing Man, who isn't so much missing as... vanished; the howls of feral dogs, the herd/mob mentality of the people... the sense of unmoving air, static, stagnancy... THE LOST is a little terrifying, like feeling someone's pulse has stopped. That's what the town of Lost, Population, Lauren, +/- Others, gave to me. As the first chapters crawled by, I got this horrible feeling of being in the eye of the storm, without having quite ...believed the build-up of the hurricane. A feeling of ...impending... everything. And, you're right; it took awhile for the narrative tension to build. Mainly because, as the book opens, you keep thinking, "Oh, okay. This is Normal. I can relate. It feels horrible to run out of gas while looking for an off-ramp. It feels terrible to be looking for the sign for the next town. It feels dreadful to not want to go home, and deal, it's horrible when it's easier to drive, and then you can't drive anymore." And the reader just keeps thinking it's all normal and relate-able and fine... just difficult, but fine... until It Isn't Fine.

The thing that indicated to me the Real Isn't-ness of the whole Fine thing was that dratted balloon... just ...drifting. ::shudder:: I don't read Stephen King, but it seemed like there ought to have been a Bad Clown somewhere, with that hideous balloon... ugh. The real horror was cemented for me through small things: dog poop on her shoes. Bad smells. Bones. Endless WIND. Grit. The sense of horror and tension is a fine piece of thread, yet, it's so dark, you have to keep feeling along the thread, to hopefully - eventually? - find the light switch... a door?... Something. You just keep hoping for SOMETHING to ground you.

And, I kept asking myself, "Is any of this real?" I think this constant fumbling, this questioning, makes THE LOST an example of modern magical realism.

AF: It's something I associate a bit with fairy tales--there's something archetypal about her journey. But it's also reminiscent of magical realism, where things are magic, not-quite-explainable, with their own rules and mythology and imagery. I have mixed feelings about magical realism, personally; I (feel free to gasp) was kind of indifferent to One Hundred Years of Solitude; on the other hand, I love Salman Rushdie's contributions to the genre. So when a book feels like it fits in with magical realism, I try to give each individual author a fair shake, judge each book on its own merits.

TSD: Apropos of nothing, really, I actually loved parts of ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but other parts were like, "meh." It was a really uneven book for me. However, I am all for full-out magical realism and more of it, in YA lit. It just comes in just so many flavors - David Almond's SKELLIG is most certainly magical realism, and I love that book down to its little creepy hollow bird bones. Edward Bloor's TANGERINE, Neil Gaiman's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, Louis Sachar's HOLES - they all have their own little hackneyed corner of weird. And, of course, we both love A CORNER OF WHITE, by Jaclyn Moriarty, which definitely lays claim to its own reality. Honestly, it IS best to approach each book in this genre on its own merits, because "real" is such a fluid, mercurial thing. Who knows what is "real?" Lauren certainly thought what was going on in THE LOST was real... and by extension, so, eventually, does the reader...

AF:With THE LOST, I felt like the magical, or possibly-magical, aspects of the story contributed to the sense of unease. I was constantly questioning, like Lauren, whether Lost was real or a figment of her imagination, and so we are right there with her on her journey to get BACK to her life no matter what that means--whether it's literal or figurative or something in her mind. We want her to regain what she's lost, so she can be whole again...because that's how it works, right?

TSD: And I LOVE THAT so much - the whole book is about recovery. Recovering from a shock of bad news, recovering from the past, and recovering... the road. The connective points between Here and There; Now and Then. Rediscovering the umbilicus which links her to the world. Once you find what's been lost, you just -Poof!- tap your shoes together, say "There's No Place Like Home," and then You Are There... or, not.

AF: Well, it's not quite that simple, as it turns out. Sometimes what we're looking for isn't what we truly are missing. To quote the Rolling Stones, "You can't always get what you want--but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need." And there are so very many ways to be lost. There are so many ways just ONE PERSON can be lost. And what happens if what you've lost isn't something that can be found again? What if it's something--or someone--that's gone forever? That question that kept popping into my head the entire time I was reading. It's a major point of tension in this book, because Lauren's mother has cancer, and she really could lose her mother forever. So she urgently wants, needs to get back, before it's too late.

TSD: I love the lists of things Lauren finds, which appear as their own little chapters throughout the book. She keeps trying to hard to find something -- ANYTHING -- that will be the Get Out Of Jail Free card, and free her from this spot in her life. It's metaphor and reality, all rolled into one. I didn't watch the TV show "Lost," but I imagine there are similarities of concept. Are WE lost? Or is what's around us the detritus of another existence? Are we less lost if we can pull, from that beached tangle of flotsam, something of value...?

Ooh. I feel so very esoteric just now. ☺

AF: What I loved about this novel was the very idea of the town of Lost, and the imagery used to describe it and populate it. How things get to Lost, and what sorts of things end up there--from the mundane (partly-drunk water bottles, mismatched random dishes, paper clips) to the fantastical (long-lost dreams) to the tragic (missing children, lost love). Entire houses end up there--a random assortment of them. Odds and ends, the detritus of everyday life.

And, of course, that draws an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, parallel between the physical sort of loss and the emotional, psychical, intangible kind. Yet embedded in that parallel is also a kind of hope--that if those mismatched socks and loose change end up somewhere, then maybe our lost dreams and lost hopes and lost happiness haven't disappeared after all--maybe those are out there somewhere, too, waiting to be found.

[Is this a conclusion? I dunno...]

TSD: Honestly? Sounds like a conclusion to me. The world gets misfiled sometimes - our thoughts, even, go missing, and we forget things, places, dates. But, it's all there... within... somewhere...

THE LOST ends with a very definite action on Lauren's part - something more brave and real than she's allowed herself to do before. No more drifting - she's choosing. And, there's a sequel to this novel called THE MISSING. I have a feeling that once you start making choices about the things which are lost in your life, it changes both how you see yourself... and how others see you. Is that a good thing? Can't quite tell. This enigmatic first novel about grown-up Peter Pans (the ultimate Lost Boy... somewhat matured?), drifting Wendys and brave, knife-wielding Tinkerbells is the first for adults from Sarah Beth Durst. We'll be looking forward to seeing where she gets to next!

Wonderland received copies of this novel, courtesy of the publisher. After May 27th, you can find THE LOST by Sarah Beth Durst at ebook retailers online, or at a brick-and-mortar indie bookstore near you!


Unknown said...

I just finished reading The Lost and loved it. My review will be going up this week. I loved your "Reading in Tandem" - you hit so many great points about the book, and the discussion format was fun to read.

tanita✿davis said...

@ Sheila: It is THE MOST FUN to read in tandem. We're going to try a graphic novel next.