A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst to your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

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“And keep drawing, too. Draw what you see, what happens here. It’s important. They can scare us, but they can’t make us forget.”

In this simply illustrated yet poignant graphic novel, Kiku Hughes reimagines herself as a teenager who is pulled back in time to witness and experience the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. There, she not only discovers the truths of what life was like within these camps but also follows her late grandmother’s own experiences having her life turned upside down as her and her family are villainized and forcibly relocated by the American government. Kiku must live alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese American citizens, as she finds out about the atrocities they had to suffer and the civil liberties they had been denied, all while somehow cultivating community and learning to survive.

Touching on important themes of cultural history and generational trauma, Hughes meshes these topics seamlessly into a fascinating plot and an extremely endearing and relatable main character. Kiku reflects a lot, during her journey, on the way that marginalized people are treated within the U.S.—during the past and in modern time—but also on the way that her family’s history and experiences had such a great effect on her own life.

Throughout the story, she feels powerless because of the lack of information she has regarding her grandmother’s past and her community’s history, which makes it difficult to help those around her. She can’t tell them what is about to happen to them; she doesn’t know what the living conditions are like in the different internment camps they are sent to; she can’t warn them about the specific atrocities that await them. She is forced to undergo this displacement alongside everyone else, and her ignorance not only makes her scared but also makes her feel quite guilty for not being able to contribute more aid or comfort to those around her.

She is also confronted with this difficult-to-place, bittersweet feeling of being disconnected from her family’s culture but also acknowledging that her own habits and traditions have been so deeply impacted by it. All these moments of introspection felt like a personal call out to me and made Kiku the kind of main character to whom a lot of readers will be able to relate.

Because of my own relationship to my family’s culture and history, reading this graphic novel was an extremely personal and emotional experience. On one hand, I think a lot of people will be able to connect with this story; on the other hand, I think a lot of other people will have the opportunity to learn something new through it.

I also loved the subtle sapphic romance arc that was included. It didn’t overpower the main message of the novel, but it was a nice, comforting surprise in an otherwise heavy read. I saw it as a beautiful testament to the joy and love we humans are capable of finding, even in moments of great duress.

The illustrations were beautiful, the art style was simple but extremely effective, the characters felt very fleshed out—which is sometimes hard to do in a graphic novel, working within a limited number of panels. All the artistic choices perfectly matched the tone of the story, which is a testament to Hughes’ true talent as a creator.

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, colourism, sexism, hate crimes, cancer, death, grief depiction, confinement, imprisonment, war themes (World War II and Japanese internment camps)

A Sweet Middle Grade Coming-of-Age: Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World cover

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Ivy Aberdeen’s life was already chaotic between her newborn twin brothers, her older sister’s odd behavior, and Ivy struggling with her own confusing feelings for girls that she can’t quite name. But then her family home is swept away by a tornado and Ivy’s world is completely upended without a home and without her trusted notebook filled with her secret drawings of girls holding hands.

That is, until the drawings from her lost notebook begin to show up in her locker, along with a note telling her she should talk to someone. Ivy doesn’t know what that note means, because obviously she’s fine. Ivy has to figure out who has her notebook and get it back, and maybe along the way she’ll figure out what those feelings even mean.

This is such a sweet middle grade story. I never knew that Ashley Herring Blake, author of the Delilah Green Doesn’t Care romances, wrote books for younger audiences! It has a lot of her charm and a love of quirky small towns, but there’s something about the formula that I find clicks even more when it comes to middle grade. Of course, I might be biased because I adore middle grade, perhaps because the explosion of LGBTQ+ middle grades are the very sorts of books that I wish I had access to when I was a kid. Luckily, they exist now, and the list is ever-growing!

Ivy is a character that feels so real as she struggles with her simultaneous love of and frustration with her family, her sometimes annoyance with her best friend, and the way she makes mistakes and oversteps and miscommunicates. All of this is written with such compassion for how hard it can be to figure out your place in the world. I also want to say that for a book that features deep grief in the wake of a natural disaster, it has such charm and humor in places that it doesn’t feel too overwhelming.  

So oftentimes a coming-of-age focuses on romance as the way for a person to figure themselves out. That certainly exists—it’s partially about Ivy’s struggle with her feelings for the new girl in class, after all—but it’s also about how families evolve and grow, how you can find community in unexpected places. It’s a lovely testament to the bravery and power in being true to yourself and I would highly recommend as a heartwarming read for a bit of hope.

Trigger warnings: natural disasters, childhood illness, grief, references to homophobia

Decadence and Decay: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

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Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary (March 5, 2024) is a considered, sorrowful, masterfully atmospheric story about mourning and the costs of surviving outside of society’s protective frameworks. It is also the story of two women in conflict with their inherited and inherent longings around family, companionship and intimacy—one from the past and one from sometime like our present.

Echoes of old-school gothic—in the vein of Rachilde or Poe—permeate Yuszczuk’s prose. And much like those bygone writers, her story is one that poetically captures the complicated moralities of relationships entangled in sociopolitical and material histories.

This is not a vampire romance in the modern sense. The seductions are married to viscera-spilling violence, the decadence marred by decay*, and a sense of bated unsettlement lingers over both the streets and lives our first narrator moves through in her quest for survival. Though she has centuries of experience, she is not immune to the same vices she exploits in others, and is in turn refreshingly slow to condemn them.

The second narrator is much less glamorous. A recent divorcee who’s barely coping with her mother’s terminal illness and hospitalization, our second narrator is struggling but refuses to admit that her white-knuckling isn’t sustainable. That she cannot go on as she always has, that relationships cannot continue in a state of suspended animation. While the past is punctuated by conclusive events and deaths, the present lingers—plastic flowers and medical equipment keep memories alive past well-meaning. We feel the narrator’s frustration, her alienation and desperation and heartache.

I enjoyed the narrators’ lack of hypocrisy and abundance of interiority. I also appreciated how the novel retains all of their dark and stylistic delight, without the aching inconclusiveness or censor-friendly endings of its pulpy and gothic paperback predecessors—even if the title and cover art are practically begging for an appositive colon.

It’s a clever title, and a colloquial pun. But Yuszczuk’s novel complicates the construction of lust as a base instinct on par with hunger or titular thirst. Lust, desire, eroticism and art are all defiant distractions from the inevitable, and their fulfillment requires the sort of communication and connection that those most basic activities do not.

The second half deals more with grief and more clearly reveals veins of Sheridan Le Fanu’s influence. Some of the scenes reminded me of reading Carmilla for the first time. The tension, the confusion, the delicate language building into bloody, sensual intimacy that is hardly explicit but unquestionably erotic.

Thirst is the sort of book that benefits from second reading or a slow first one. It’s not heavy-handed, but it would be a rich digestif to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 opus—and is more than a little likely to appeal to fans of that book. While most of the women’s anxieties are tangible and described in grounded detail, their phantastic responses (as well as the ways wealth, privilege, generational fears and architecture are represented) squarely situate this work within the gothic tradition. I also take this as a historical win— we’re past the period when “hysteria” was a valid diagnosis and when women had to veil lived traumas under layers of metaphor.

As with most translated literature, particularly ones that are heavily descriptive, subtly humorous, or in conversation with historical works, there is a chance that a little something may have been lost in translation. And while I haven’t yet read the original, I can attest that Heather Cleary’s translation maintains a lush, tactile lyricism that swept me into the history, even when the perspective was contemporary enough to reference the recent Coronavirus pandemic. 

The vibes were, to put it succinctly, immaculate.

Content warnings: violence, euthanasia

*Some might argue that the close juxtaposition of decay only heightens decadence by contrast. I personally feel that it’s more about how people seek out beauty and small pleasures even in dreary circumstances, but you do you.

A Painfully Realistic Teen Romance: Cupid’s Revenge by Wibke Brueggemann

the cover of Cupid's Revenge

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I will admit that the cover really influenced me in picking this one up. I think it’s stunning. But I’m glad I did!

Tilly is only non-artist in a house of passionate artists, and she’s always felt left out. Her parents don’t really understand her, and they also have never seemed very enthusiastic about being parents. (I had to put the book down for a moment because I was so overcome with anger at them.) What’s worse, though, is that they’ve let her know that her Grandad with Alzheimer’s is coming to stay with them. In theory, it’s so they can take care of him, but Tilly knows they’re completely unreliable and that it’s going to become her responsibility to look after him.

She’s also terrified that he’s going to die in their house. She already experienced loss in her life and struggles with the grief. Tilly used to be part of a trio of friends, along with Grace and Teddy. They grew up together and were inseparable. Then Grace was hit by car and died when she was thirteen, and Teddy confessed to Tilly that he was in love with Grace and never told her. Grace’s death looms large in both their lives, and Tilly sometimes imagines her in the room with her, commenting on her decisions.

That’s already complicated enough, but then Teddy asks her for a favour. He has a crush on a girl named Katherine, but is hopeless about acting on it. He wants Tilly to help him. Katherine is an actor, and Teddy auditions for the same play as an excuse to spend time with her. Tilly is roped into being assistant to the director. Unfortunately, she also instantly and overwhelmingly falls for Katherine herself.

This is the most painfully realistic book I’ve read about being a teenager. At some points Tilly “wonder[s] if I’d have to spend the rest of my life feeling both aroused and miserable,” and that really is what she’s like through the whole book: confused, horny, and sad. I don’t know about your teenage experience, but that felt uncomfortably true to being flooded with adolescent hormones. It’s both the biggest positive and negative of the book.

Also realistic is that this is an instalove story. Tilly is immediately attracted to Katherine at first sight, which I think is pretty typical of teen relationships in real life versus fiction. Both Tilly and Katherine are flawed, which I thought made it more compelling and convincing, but I know not all readers enjoy.

I do want to give some warnings for this, not so much in terms of content but tone. I found this a stressful read, both because of Tilly having to shoulder far more of her grandfather’s care than she should have had to, and because of her stress and guilt about lying to Teddy. I also want to give a content warning for outing. There’s some religious talk, though that’s not a big focus. The pandemic is mentioned, but it’s also not a focus, and it’s talked about past tense. And one more thing, if it wasn’t obvious: there is a lot of sex talk. Including researching sex techniques through reading fanfiction.

On another note, there’s a side character who’s a Polish immigrant, and I found it strange how much he was distilled down to just “the Polish immigrant.” Like this line, where Tilly watches him have a completely normal interaction and thinks, “I wished so much that I was an immigrant who knew no one and hadn’t done anything wrong in this place that was now home.”

If you want to be transported to the awkward, stressful, and often miserable time of being a teenager, this book does it perfectly. I would have enjoyed it even more if I had read it as a teen, I’m sure.

A Holiday Romance with Depth: Season of Love by Helena Greer

the cover of Season of Love

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Every year, I intend to read a bunch of queer holiday romances in December, but I don’t usually follow through with it. The holiday romances that I have read were often flops, which doesn’t help. This year, I gathered together my collection of sapphic holiday romance novels and sampled each one. I ended up picking Season of Love because I clicked with the first few pages the most, and I’m so glad I did.

When I think of holiday romances, I think fluff. So I was a little trepidatious about diving into this one, because it is not the lightest of romance reads: it’s fundamentally a story about grief, trauma, and the damage that comes with it. Even the romance starts with a lot of tension: despite being immediately attracted to each other, Miriam and Noelle immediately bump heads, to the point where Miriam thinks Noelle hates her—which isn’t entirely inaccurate, at first.

Even when they are able to get past that initial tension, Miriam and Noelle do run into (believable) road blocks in their relationship. Their trauma has resulted in them having clashing instincts, like Miriam wanting to run at the first sign of danger, and Noelle fearing abandonment. They have to work to overcome that—but they are also compatible and have a lot of chemistry, so it felt worth it.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this tension and darkness just added depth to this holiday love story, though. Maybe that’s why I was having such bad luck picking up Christmas romances: I actually don’t need it to be all fluff to enjoy it.

Season of Love also has an interesting contrast in its setting: the Christmas tree farm that Miriam, Noelle, and Miriam’s cousins inherit is a Christmas wonderland of over-the-top decorations, just outside the town of Advent. It’s dripping in Christmas charm. But it’s run by a Jewish family (Miriam is Jewish), which adds more depth to the setting and doesn’t let it become too cloyingly Christmas.

Another aspect I loved about this story is right there on the front cover: Noelle is a fat butch woman who Miriam is incredibly attracted to. Despite reading a lot of lesbian and sapphic books, I still don’t see fat butch women celebrated as love interests very often.

That leads me to my only, very minor, complaint: this is a closed door romance, which normally I don’t mind, but we spent so long hearing about the sexual tension between them that I was a little disappointed to have it resolve in a fade to black scene, especially because fat butches have so little representation in romance and erotica.

I’m really glad I read this over the holidays, and as long as you’re up for a holiday romance that isn’t pure fluff, I highly recommend it.

Piercingly Insightful Poetry: The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

the cover of The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by Mimi Tempestt

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From the epigraph to the end, this book is clear-eyed about its aims and its author’s perspective. Tempestt’s writing draws the reader in as a participant, with mentions of readers, watchers, audiences that are not confrontational, but certainly not abstracted. Reading this collection felt like watching spoken word, or another kind of embodied performance. Even their most numinous ideas are tangible, and felt within the reader’s body. This sort of experience can become consumptive, but Tempestt’s lyrical acknowledgement of these possible dynamics means the close reader has to interrogate their own relationship to the text.

What are the boxes offered to you, and what becomes of you when you cannot fit, contort yourself to fit, or decide to totally reimagine the presumed binary of these interactions entirely? It’s like those Barbara Kruger pieces—what do you hope art will do for you even when, especially when, it’s not a mirror?

Tempestt adds to that conversation, questioning how the commodification of artists’ pain and grief perpetuates power dynamics, and reflects entrenched values that prioritize certain approaches over other, equally poignant but under-published ones.

She understands the demands of performance acutely, intimately, and expresses them with a beautiful poeticism. The deforming weight of others demands and needs—both the explicitly coercive and the more implicit, insidious sorts that can arise in intimate relationships and workplaces and alike—are all rendered here. But it is not a bleak work. The poems are full of anger, frustration, also strength, joyful reminiscence, and even a sort of timeless expansiveness in the titular one.

I hesitate to use the word “metaphysical” because it conjures up the sort of philosopher-types whose practices and philosophies are shot through with the sort of categorical essentialism that does not necessarily align with this work’s core spiral symbolism. Or the synecdochal head-shop proprietor whose commercial enterprise’s interiors have sensorially co-opted incense from the practices of currently colonized faiths. But it is either that or the word “transcendental,” and personal connotative grievances aside, there is a sense of something magical in Tempestt’s verse. It is grounded, but there is also something more beneath that earth.

Death and discontent can become defanged when broken into art. But Tempestt’s writing keeps its edges, its piercing-flesh insights. The last piece, a short immersive play, was one of my favorites. The prose was incisive, with both the violence and precision of a fine scalpel, cutting through thick skin and protective coverings to reveal something visually red and viscerally tender. 

All that said, I’ve always been drawn to the ambiguousness of poetry, where the interpretation often says as much about the reader as the creator. It can be a site for shared understandings, or one that clearly demarcates the reader’s alienation from the emotional truths of the poet. 

This collection was engaging, clever, poetic and expressive. I strongly recommend it to people who enjoy formally-unconstrained but deftly shaped poetry with word-playfulness that seamlessly maintains its heft and intensity.

A Meditation On Grief Through a Speculative Lens: Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield

the cover of Our Wives Under the Sea

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I’ve seen this book mainly categorised as horror but after reading it, it feels more like a speculative fiction with elements of horror and sci-fi in it. This book transcends genres: that’s the mark of a phenomenal read! 

I went into this story expecting an action-packed, horror-strewn plotline and found something much better and resounding. Leah, a marine biologist, is married to Miri and embarks on a deep-sea mission from which she doesn’t return for six months. It’s a mission that goes horribly wrong and alters her life inextricably. The story is told from alternating points of view of Leah and her wife, Miri. 

The first portion of the book portrays the slow and gradual deterioration of their relationship and the silences that hover around them. The writing style is mundanely descriptive and intimate but charged with unspoken emotions. The author spotlights and emphasises their dynamic inner worlds and feelings and their reaction to this traumatic event. 

The chapters are interspersed with haunting and heartfelt past memories of the couple that throw into stark relief their dire situation in the present. Miri feels that the only way to move forward is to look back and hold the past as a beacon of light to guide their enigmatic future. This new unprecedented future seems endless, strange and indescribable, and in contrast, the past feels tangible and comforting. So she collects pieces of her past, holds them close to her heart, and soldiers on. 

There is a constant tone of nostalgia and a sense of something that is lost and irretrievable. Miri tries her best to be there for her wife through her transformations and it takes a toll on her. For Leah, she carries the horrors that she faced under the sea to her life on the land as well. The sea haunts her days and nights alike. Leah’s experience under the sea isolates her and brings her face-to-face with a truth that lodges itself into her body and continues to take charge of her. It is interesting to witness the struggles of the wives parallelly. 

Some of the chapters in the book make brilliant comments on grief and its enduring hold. It shows us how grief can transform us, either for the better or for the worse. Apart from the sea experience, I think the book also comments on how some traumatic events can really shake the foundations of our lives and relationships and permanently set us adrift. Also, I found the naming of the parts in this book very interesting and accurate. It documents how Leah gradually becomes one with the ocean and loses her grip on the land. 

The last portion of this book is filled with suspense and it takes on a frenzy sort of urgency. Even though I predicted the ending, it completely crushed me. It reminded me of the movie Shape of the Water. As long as you don’t dwell on the technicalities of the plot, the story is heartbreaking and profound. The book gets sadder as it progresses and then suddenly it plunges you into an abyss of absurdity and terror. I was not ready for it. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! The entire reading experience feels like a poetic submersion! 

#SapphicSoccerStoryGoals: You Don’t Have a Shot by Racquel Marie

the cover of You Don't Have a Shot

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You Don’t Have A Shot is sapphic soccer-rivals-to-lovers perfection set in present-day Southern California. If you’re still mourning the fact that the Women’s World Cup is over or you agree that “fútbol is life” a la Danny Rojas from Ted Lasso (but with a queer Latina twist), this book is for you!

In this heartwarming YA novel, Racquel Marie (she/her) introduces readers to Valentina “Vale” Castillo-Green, who is half Colombian, half Irish, and all about soccer. At the outset of the novel, we learn that Vale’s dream of playing college soccer has just imploded after her high school team, the Ravens, suffer a devastating loss at the hands of Hillcrest/her archrival, Leticia Ortiz. Although Vale is the captain of her team, it is apparent that she has lost her way as its leader. Vale intends to spend the summer before her senior year sulking at a low-stakes, sleepaway soccer camp she hasn’t been to in several years with her best friends and teammates, Dina and Ovie. Unbeknownst to Vale, soccer camp has gotten way more competitive in the last few years and she isn’t the only SoCal Latina planning to spend the summer there. Leticia will be attending as well, and sparks are sure to fly!

Vale is a character with depth and substance. Her inner monologue is sharp and hilarious. She is flawed, relatable, and always growing. Early on, we learn that her mother died of cancer a few years ago when she was thirteen and she is continuing to work through that grief. Unfortunately, that process is exacerbated by her complicated relationship with her father, who really wants Vale to excel in soccer, but has a penchant for negative, and often cruel, reinforcement that borders on emotional abuse. In his eyes, nothing Vale does on the pitch is ever good enough, and she has internalized his criticisms, as evidinced by her anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Notwithstanding her fraught relationship with her father and the loss of her mother, Vale is incredibly resilient and well-adjusted. She is in for an unforgettable summer where she is going to have to figure out what kind of leader she is and grapple with what soccer truly means to her.

The world that Racquel Marie builds is rich with diversity. Vale is biracial, queer, and asexual. Leticia is Cuban, a lesbian, and has two moms. There are several women of color who play important roles in Vale’s life, as well as significant bisexual, pansexual, gay, and trans characters. Although not a criticism, I really wanted to hear more about Vale’s queer asexuality. I thought it was an important aspect of her identity that I don’t usually see represented in YA literature and that Racquel Marie could have spent a little more time developing it. 

Overall, I loved this book. I coveted sapphic YA when I was in high school, but I couldn’t always find it. When I did, the characters didn’t usually share my cultural background. You Don’t Have a Shot is the kind of feel-good, representative book I wish I had growing up. Read it.

Trigger Warnings: anxiety, death of a loved one, and emotionally abusive language.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

The Claustrophobia of Grief: Where Echoes Die by Courtney Gould

the cover of Where Echoes Die by Courtney Gould

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Grief is one of the most popular themes explored within the horror genre. From TV, to film, to literature, death is one of the human experiences that vexes us the most, and people use art and media to grapple with the aspects of our existence that are completely out of our control. I have watched a ton of movies and read a lot of books that were either centered around or touched upon the experience of grief, and it remains one of my favourite topics to explore within the horror genre. However, considering how outstanding so many of these have been, I have also come to develop very high expectations for works of art that tackle grief, and an author really has to address the topic creatively to pique my interest.

Courtney Gould’s debut novel, The Dead and the Dark, has been, for a couple of years now, one of my favourite books. I have recommended it every chance I have had, and I will always hold it very dear to my heart. So, I was incredibly nervous about picking up her second release, Where Echoes Die. Not only did it seem impossible for another story to affect me quite as much as The Dead and the Dark, but I also knew it would, to a certain extent, discuss the experience of grief and death. There was so much that could go wrong, and I was fully expecting myself to be, at least somewhat, disappointed. Thankfully, Gould not only met but surpassed those expectations, and her talent grew so exponentially from one book to another, my jaw was on the floor by the end of the novel.

Where Echoes Die is the story of Beck, who travels to a small town in Arizona with her younger sister to investigate its connection to their mother’s death. She’s been adrift since her mother’s passing, unable to stop herself from slipping into memories of happier times. In the isolated community of Backravel, Beck tries to understand what drew her mother to this place, all while desperately trying to hold onto the way things used to be. She soon discovers, however, that there is something off about the town and its people. And while she finds herself getting closer to the daughter of the community’s leader, Avery, Beck must uncover the town’s secrets before her or her sister get hurt… or before she loses herself completely.

This was such a fascinating and interesting take on grief. Gould breaks it down and explores every single facet of dealing with death: what it means to feel unable to move on, to always hold onto the past, the way your grief can affect those around you, and the way it can affect you in ways you don’t even realize. The relationships in this story are so interesting, and the book really explores not only those specific dynamics, but also the way they shift other relationships, and how that shift changes over time—either for better or for worse. Complex family dynamics in fiction will always make me emotional, and the mother-daughter relationship was particularly well-executed here. That balance between making your reader understand the love that a child has for a parent, while also empathizing with the trauma to which they’ve been victim and conceptualizing the extent to which it affected them is something that takes real talent to be able to execute correctly, and Gould does exactly that. The relationship between the sisters was also so well woven into the plot and the main character’s journey, and it added such an impressive extra layer to the overall family dynamic.

Grief is all-encompassing and can make a person suffer through feelings of anxiety, claustrophobia, loss of control, desperation. This novel forces you to experience every single one of those emotions, and more. It is so affective, and in such a masterfully subtle way, you don’t even realize how tense it makes you feel until you take a break or set the book down.

To say that this made me cry would be a terrible understatement. I sobbed. I was distraught. I think that my neighbours were concerned about the wails floating through the walls of my building as I, myself, grieved with all the characters in the story, and I would give the world to be able to relive those last few chapters for the first time all over again.

Although this may seem counterintuitive to some people, whether or not a horror novel actually terrified me is not a main criterion in the scale I use to rate a book. It’s always a fun bonus, but I’ve developed some pretty thick skin and the genre is so much more complex than just pure fear factor. That being said, this was truly unnerving. The unsettling feeling that persisted throughout the whole story was a pleasant surprise and an improvement, I believe, from The Dead and the Dark, which was maybe not quite as frightening. Gould really captured the terror of not being in control of yourself or your environment and feeling unsure about everything happening around you.

Finally, I want to thank Gould for consistently using the world “lesbian” in the text of all of her novels. Authors regularly opt for other terms such as “sapphic” or “queer” or “gay”, even when referring to a character that is clearly and specifically a lesbian. And while there are a ton of reasons for an author to utilize different terminology, as a lesbian reader and book reviewer, it is such a wonderful feeling to see the word actually used on-page. While queerness isn’t quite as central in Where Echoes Die as it was in The Dead and the Dark, there is a sapphic romance that is significant to the plot itself, and the main character does openly specify that she is a lesbian—which was once again such a validating moment.

Even if you have no personal relationship with grief, you will be fully enthralled by this story and it will take you through a cathartic, emotional rollercoaster like never before. I wholeheartedly recommend it; it is an amazing example of the depth of the horror genre and just how much substance an author can include within one singular storyline.

Representation: lesbian main character, sapphic love interest

Content warnings: death of a parent/death of a loved one, emotional abuse, gaslighting, emetophobia/vomiting