Author: Joan Frances Turner
Genre: Horror, Zombies, Post-Apocalyptic, Speculative Fiction
Publication date: September 7 2010
Hardcover: 384 pages
Nine years ago, Jessie had a family. Now, she has a gang.
Nine years ago, Jessie was a vegetarian. Now, she eats very fresh meat.
Nine years ago, Jessie was in a car crash and died. Nine years ago, Jessie was human.
Now, she’s not.
After she was buried, Jessie awoke and tore through the earth to arise, reborn, as a zombie. Jessie’s gang is the Fly-by-Nights. She loves the ancient, skeletal Florian and his memories of time gone by. She’s in love with Joe, a maggot-infested corpse. They fight, hunt, dance together as one—something humans can never understand. There are dark places humans have learned to avoid, lest they run into the zombie gangs.
But now, Jessie and the Fly-by-Nights have seen new creatures in the woods—things not human and not zombie. A strange new illness has flamed up out of nowhere, causing the undeads to become more alive and the living to exist on the brink of death. As bits and pieces of the truth fall around Jessie, like the flesh off her bones, she’ll have to choose between looking away or staring down the madness—and hanging onto everything she has come to know as life.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Review copies from the publisher
Why did we read this book: Thea loves zombies and Ana has a new found appreciation for the creatures. When we first heard about the book, we both went: WANT.
Thea: According to the marketing promo behind Dust, the novel promises to be…different than the average zombie novel. It promises to tell the story of life after death, from the walking dead’s perspective. It promises to make readers question what they know about life and death, through the eyes of a not-so-young heroine, named Jessie. These are a whole lotta promises for a debut novel to deliver, but deliver Dust certainly does. It’s a haunting, elegiac portrait of life after death, of relationships and emotions from the perspective of a character that is no longer human, but not a monster either. Dust is one of those books that gets better the more that I reflect upon it. I loved it. (And, I think that you should listen to me and not Ana, because she is wrong and I am right, and that is all there is to it.)
Ana: I had very much the opposite reaction to the book – the more I reflect upon it, the less I like it. It starts well enough but half way through the book, it loses its steam. The marketing promo, the blurb, the cover of my ARC (a letter from the marketing department) all tell me how different the book is going to be and I think that ultimately it does not deliver on its promise. I think that story-wise it doesn’t work that well and the basic themes of life and death and being human x being a zombie, were extremely heavy-handed. I didn’t like it.
On the plot:
Thea: Dust is the story of Jessie, or Jessica Anne Porter that was, a girl that was fifteen when she was killed in a car accident only to rise days later as a zombie. Fighting her way out of her cement sealed grave under six feet of dirt, Jessie finds refuge of a kind with a gang of other undead, that call themselves the Fly-By-Nights. After taking their brutal initiation of beating, breaking her bones and causing her to retch up a dark mixture of fetid, congealed blood (“Coffin Liquor,” as the zombies call it), Jessie becomes an official member of the gang, and she finally feels at home. Roaming the forest together for deer, possum and other wild prey, Jessie is respected by her fellow gang members as a fighter – even one-armed, as the book opens with Jessie finally losing her right appendage, Jessie is perhaps the fiercest fighter of the group. But then, something strange disturbs Jessie’s comfortable routine. First, there’s the strange blonde “hoo” (zombie slang for human) that stumbles into their woods, so far from the protections of civilization. Disoriented, sweating a strange, non-human, chemical smell, the girl seems like something caught between living and dead – not quite hoo, but not quite zombie either. Then, gang leader Teresa starts acting strangely, smelling eerily like the not-hoo girl from the woods. Something frightening is happening to the undead and living alike, and not a soul will be left untouched.
Well, what can I say about Dust? It is a haunting story that lingers with you long after finishing the novel. It is deeply unsettling, unique, and beautifully written. It is a story that is, more than anything else (and contrary to what Ana will tell you about romance or whatever) about people that have lived, died, and been born again in a cold, cruel world. Yes, they are flesh-hungry, but they aren’t “monsters” – at least, not any more than humans are monsters. From a plotting perspective, Dust is a quiet novel, a loving macabre ode to sinew and blood, of decay and the maggots and blowflies that feed upon the flesh of the dead. But instead of being gratuitous or overly gory for the sake of being gory, Dust is in actuality a beautiful, melancholy book – Ms. Turner manages to make the sight of dusty, parchment-thin skin beautiful, the warm blood and entrails of a fresh kill vibrant and delectable. Dust isn’t a book that aims to shock and disgust; rather, it simply is an honest recording of the life of Jessie and her gang.
Dust also is a mystery of sorts, and a book of discovery and reconciliation. There is the question of the cause and nature of the strange new infection that sweeps the forest, a biological mystery that unfolds beautifully and gradually over the course of the novel. The cause of the apocalyptic bacteria is insignificant though, really, as the more important, underlying theme is not on the macro but micro level – personal guilt, family loyalty and perceived betrayal. Though the idea of the microbe unleashed by humanity ultimately leading to the species’ demise is nothing new, Ms. Turner handles this aspect of the novel beautifully, creating a tempered, well-paced tale that I devoured whole in essentially a few short hours.
On the more technical, zombie-fan sort of stuff, I must say that I loved Ms. Turner’s take on the life cycle of the zombie, as I did the newly imagined method that they communicate with each other, although I will say that certain aspects felt underdeveloped (the strange, literal “danse macabre” and the way they hear thoughts in terms of music – or perhaps only Jessie does this?). Still, I loved their new, superior neuron-firing capable brains, and most of all, their perceived “superiority” to the idiot, stinking hoos. They aren’t superior of course – this is the beauty of Dust, with its flawed characters, laying bare the faults of both humanity and zombie, the difference between the two not so dramatic as one might suspect. I loved that the book doesn’t feel the need to explain everything explicitly, that Ms. Turner makes some unorthodox choices towards the end of the novel, too. And, contrary to the notion that Dust is romantic or some sort of cautionary tale, I will say that, in my opinion, this misses the point of the book. In my opinion, I didn’t find this book romantic at all (certainly not in the conventional, human interpretation of the word) and it certainly is not a factor in anything that Jessie chooses to do – take, for example, Jessie’s last huge decision to walk to the sands. If this were all about true love, wouldn’t she have dragged her true love with her? No. She goes by herself. Very, very late in the book (i’m talking the last 30 pages) there is, I guess, what can be interpreted as a romantic development, but Jessie isn’t exactly a romantic person. I didn’t see this relationship as a romance so much as it is a reunion between people that thought they would never see each other again. But this is all moot, and I don’t even want to spend any more time on this because the book is really not a romance, it’s only a teeny tiny 1% of the overall book, and it’s distracting from the main point:
Dust is above all a deconstruction of the zombie myth.
Instead of using the undead as a catalyst for human ugliness, it instead approaches zombies as people…that have died and been born again. It is their story, through one of their own’s eyes. It is not a cautionary tale about the evils of humanity or the presumptions of science or whatnot; to reduce the complexity of Dust to such an interpretation does the book a grave disservice. I’d liken Dust to a novel such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which plays on the same human/inhuman blurry areas (but more on that in the character section below).
I will say, however, that Dust is a book that clearly is NOT for everyone. Take the ending, for example (which I think, as a zombie fan, is an homage to a cornerstone of scifi horror) – it’s a risk and understandably, not for everyone. But for me? I loved it.
Ana: Dust has a promising start and I loved the first half of the book: with gore and violence and a wonderful look at how Jessie lives now. I especially liked how zombies are still decaying and will eventually, and very slowly, go through what all dead bodies go through: all the stages of decay but with the different that it happens to the zombies whilst they are conscious. It is in fact the living dead in all their horrifying glory.
But is Dust really that different from the average zombie novel? I don’t think so. Sure, it is from a different perspective ,ie from the living dead themselves but at its core it still deals with fear, love and what it is to be human. THAT’s what bothers me the most about the book – that it promises a world of difference, but that it doesn’t deliver.
I will agree with Thea when she says that Dust is above all a deconstruction of the zombie myth but beyond that, is where we fundamentally disagree. I think that this deconstruction is not well done at all, it is heavy – handed and yes, with an underlying message. I think that the idea that zombies “are just people who died” is hammered over and over again in a less than subtle way. In trying to show the other side’s story, I believe the author did in fact a 360 turn going right back at the starting point – by making them just like humans only with a different diet. The more the story progresses, the more Jessie and her companions sound like humans and when the virus hits they even start to look like humans. Which brings me back to the point I am trying to make: the story to me is not unique, or original; it simply deals with flawed characters who can be as good and bad, as violent or not, as humans are. Perhaps that is actually the point. In which case, it is just another story that doesn’t have anything special to it, at least not for me.
It is also very predictable: I saw the resolution coming a mile away, I saw the identity of one the characters as soon as she walked into the novel and I saw the romantic development between Jessie and another character basically from page 1 and yes, there is romance there although not – I agree with Thea here – central to the story. And although I don’t think that the book is about messages, they are undoubtedly THERE : in what humans are capable of, what science is capable of, what people would do for misguided love. It is so there that at one point Jessie muses:
“typical human and no, I refused to start thinking of myself as one too. “Speaking,” I said, as coldly and calmly as I could muster, “as someone with a little actual afterlife experience? This isn’t hell. There is no hell. It’s just what your kind always do to the world in one form of another, so pull yourself together and keep walking”.
I kept thinking about “identity” and how what really differentiates zombies and humans is simply how each chooses to consume their food: zombies like it raw, humans like it cooked. At first, it seemed to be more than that: it seemed that there was going to be MORE that identified the zombies as separate entities– perhaps their aggressive culture, perhaps their danse macabre – but the former can be put down as another thing that is actually remnants of their humanity and the latter is never truly explored. I think this makes the book less complex and more simplistic, as a matter of fact.
But beyond that: the novel has problems with pacing as well with the second half dragging itself to a conclusion full of navel gazing. With regards to the ending: count me in as one that did not like it, but then again, I am not a horror-sci fi fan and probably failed to see as the homage that it possibly is.
On the characters:
Thea: Dust is one of those books that gets better upon reflection, especially from a character perspective. As with any book filtered through the perspective of a single character, there is a degree of unreliability – and I think that it is important to keep in mind that our narrator, Jessie, is a flawed character that sees what she wants to see, and interprets things in the way she wants to interpret them. Again, the important thing to remember about Dust is that it is a book about the life after death – about people that have lived and died, and have been reborn. As such, Jessie and her ilk experience emotions that are very human and familiar – and yet at the same time, they are not exactly human (which makes sense – if all of our life experiences contribute to how we see things and interpret the world around us, the effect is even more dramatic on those that have been killed and reanimated). And this is the main point of contention between Ana and myself, because Ana thinks that the emotions that Jessie feels are TOO human to be zombie, to which I ask, what then makes a zombie? Must they only be mindless creatures hungering for braaaaaains? And then I would ask, why this hate against the zombie? In other books featuring vampires or fairies or werewolves or angels, they all experience “human” emotions, and those are considered successes or acceptable, but when it’s a zombie this is a failure? It seems hypocritical to me. Zombie discrimination, I tell you! Again, this is Ms. Turner’s deconstruction of the zombie, by making them something other – not human, certainly not, but not so unfamiliar either. Not living, not dead, but something in between.
As a narrator and protagonist, Jessie is a mess of sharp edges, tough attitude, and strangely, vulnerability. Jessie’s narration is by turns funny, astute, and hard. Though she was only fifteen when she died, death and revival have a way of changing a body, both physically and emotionally. Through her memories, we learn about her less-than-ideal human life, and her final ability to find a home only beyond the grave. Her relationship with her gang, especially the tangled, complicated relationship with Joe, is fodder for reflection. Yes, Jessie feels emotions – remorse, love, hate, guilt, although I would argue that her brand of emotion is twisted and if human in origin, no longer exactly human in expression – and over the course of the book she grows and changes as a character, as do the other main characters in the book. And, unlike vampires locked in eternal youth, or zombies in films locked in eternal hunger, Jessie and her crew’s desires for food do not dictate who or what they are. They are not in permanent stasis, as each zombie has a life cycle of its own. When the shit hits the fan later in the book and both zombies and humans begin to change again, mutating from undead to..sort of living again, these emotions and needs morph as well. I think it’s a pretty awesome catalyst for character development, and an original way to take a look at the connection between eating, and (non)humanity.
“How many kinds of living and dead and living dead and dead living had I been in just these few months, these few days, after the stasis of plain old human living and dying? I deserved some kind of existential medal.”
As for the other characters, I thought they were all wonderfully handled and written, in particular ‘maldie Renee (lost and friendless and discriminated against for the fact that she was embalmed), the dustie Florian with his pacifism and insightful senility, the quiet and less aggressive (yet courageous) Linc, and of course, the manipulative, screeching electric guitar that is Joe. If there’s anything that will differentiate the zombie from the human, I think it is apparent in Jessie and Joe’s relationship, in which they crush each other’s bones and fight to the point of threatening each other’s deaths as a normality, but find solace in that rage. It is what by hoo terms we would call an abusive relationship, but our interpretations don’t really apply to the walking dead. Theirs is a tangled mess of hate and trust and love, and while there are glimpses of humanity and these characters (or at least Jessie) has some semblance of right and wrong, the zombie rulebook is completely different from the human one. It is this otherness that makes the deconstruction a success, in my opinion.
I will briefly address what I know Ana will bring up (based on our emails back and forth). I just want to say that I do NOT think the author assigns any moral judgements to her characters, to Jessie’s relationships, or to any aspect of the story. Jessie does have a sense of morality, although it clearly has changed since her time as a human (from a vegan animal rights activist to an animal huntress and zombie killer as one of the most fierce of the gang’s fighters, and in the end, eating anyone and anything – human, plant, inanimate object, friend, enemy – in order to survive). The presence of Jessie’s ability to make decisions based on her own concepts of morality does not equate to a moral message or judgement for the book, however. In my opinion, this just confirms how these biological changes effect the experience and perception of each character in this book. I think that it is important to remember that Dust is a book about what are by definition non-human characters, with vestiges of humanity – they remember who they were, certain things from their lives, and they feel emotions. But it is vital to keep in mind that they are creatures that have died and been reborn, their very brains rewired and reconfigured. They do not think in the same way that we do, as much as a twenty-year old thinks and behaves in the way that an eighty-year old would, and so for that reason their motivations may sit strangely with us hoo readers – but that, I think, is the point. There is no underlying message, no judgement or subtext that says that zombies are GOOD and humans are EVIL or any such nonsense. I urge everyone to please, please, for the love of all that is good in the world of literature, to try to step outside of your comfort zone and view Jessie’s world through the eyes of someone that is neither living nor dead, but someone caught in between.
Ana: What are zombies? I don’t know. They might not be all about braaaaaaaaaiins but I think it is clear that they are not simply “humans who died” either. They are “other”. And this is indeed the greatest point of contention between Thea and me when it comes to the book: I think that the book completely fails in capturing this “otherness” of these characters and fully exploring and developing it. I think that the zombies here are utterly familiar, completely humanised and to me that include human moral judgments as well or else Jessie would not mind eating humans; or else Jessie would not know that there is “right” and “wrong” and that her abusive relationship with Joe for example falls under the latter. That is definitely this awareness here and I honestly don’t see a complete re-wire of their brains. Dust might be a book about non-human characters but still so very human that they still have very human concepts of morality and emotions.
Jessie is very much still human, (even though she will tell you that she is not and I am agreeing on the unreliability of her narrative here), wanting to be loved and accepted which is in direct contrast to what happened to her when she was alive – she was neither loved or accepted when alive. Which is why she fell into the relationship with Joe – not because as a zombie she doesn’t care anymore, or her brain has been re-wired but because of her very human characteristics of wanting to fit in, be accepted. At one point she thinks:
“Even knowing then and later that I should have collected my strength and wits, turned around and left for good, no looking back. I stayed because of him. Like I said, I was fifteen”
“I hated that look. I hated that I could never even see the sorry part of it anymore, the part that really mattered, all I could see was how it was still always me that was wrong and him that was right. Always. No matter what.”
This reads as though it could apply to anybody. I would have loved to see the “otherness” or a true Zombie 2.0 story. To me, I just read another book of a character that had family issues and carried them to grave and beyond – with a bit of mystery on the side.
Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:
Thea: Clearly, Dust is not for everyone. At times funny, at times painful, this reimagining of the zombie resonated for me, like the strings of the electric guitar or quiet plink of piano Jessie hears in her undead brain. It’s a strange book, but a memorable one for all that. A notable, if not favorite, read of 2010 for me.
Ana: Definitely not for everyone and above all, definitely not for me. Dust left me completely cold and underwhelmed.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.
In the accident that killed me I rocketed from the back seat straight through the windshield–no seatbelt, yeah, I know–and the pavement sheared my arm to nothing below the shoulder. Not torn off, but dangling by thin, precious little bits of skin and bone and ligament. I had a closed casket, I’m sure of it, because they never wired the arm or glued it or any other pretty undertaker trick. I managed to crawl back out of the ground without its help anyway, and of course after nine perfectly uneventful years of fighting and dancing and hunting and getting by fine with the left arm, the right finally shuffles its coil right on the banks of the Great River County Park’s not-so-Great River, smack in the middle of a meat run. Joe, my boy, my backup, was not sympathetic in the least….
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Dust has a pretty cool website, complete with extras such as the following book trailers (this one is hilarious, if not really having anything at all to do with the book):
You can see the other trailers HERE.
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Ana: 5 – Meh
Reading Next: Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon
Courtesy of publisher Ace, we have FIVE copies of Dust up for grabs. The contest is open to addresses in the United States only, and will run until September 4th at 11:59 pm (PST). To enter, leave a comment here telling us what your favorite zombie novel is. Only ONE entry per person, please! Multiple comments from the same I.P. address will be automatically disqualified. Good luck!