That cover certainly sets the tone, doesn’t it? Dust Bath Revival by Marianne Kirby scared me right away. We’re in Florida, but everything is hot and dusty. So many things were “off” in this futuristic, apocalyptic setting. The general stores has mirrors so you can see “what was coming up behind you.” People burn fields when the crops are moved in the middle of the night. I thought this was a book about zombies, but Kirby avoided all cliches about the creatures. I was 100% unnerved by the end of chapter 1. . .
Hank, a sixteen-year-old fat girl, spends all day doing chores, particularly minding the chickens. Her brother, Ben, who is eighteen, has his own chores, and both listen to their Aunt Marty without question. Parents? Dead. The threesome live outside of town, outside the protection of walls, which kind of makes them safer away from the center of things, but leaves them exposed, too. No one travels in the dark. Hank, Ben, and Marty rarely go into town, but the novella opens with Hank and Ben at the general store where they buy essentials. One scene gives you a feel for the characters’ fear:
“You riding up front or what?”
I set my jaw, ground me teeth in aggravation until I could hear them squeak. “I’ll ride in back.”
It wasn’t a smart choice — the sun was already fading and the truck bed wasn’t real protected of even all that comfortable. I could sit on the rolled-up tarp we’d never gotten around to putting anywhere else, but there wasn’t any place to hide. We could stand to lose a bag of light bulbs or produce if it came down to it, but I would be so easy to replace if anything happened.
One day, a vehicle pulls up to the house first thing in the morning. These folks aren’t from around here, which means they’ve been travelling through the night — in the dark. A preacher asks Marty if he can use one of her fields for a stint of time to hold revivals. The money offered is too good to refuse, and the preacher’s team gets to work setting up a large tent. If you’re a fan of horror, everything at this point spells bad news. Regardless of the heat and dust, people flock to the tent to see what the preacher has in a cage.
From her first-person point of view, Hank explains the ubiquitous dust. People believe the dust is what changed everyone, why “the Reborn rose. And they were always more active after a storm, regardless of how they had been made” (emphasis mine — note that zombies aren’t typically made in different ways). An interesting aspect of Dust Bath Revival is that we don’t know anything. Kirby doesn’t follow a traditional zombie narrative, so everything is a surprise. Typically, a zombie is made when one is bitten by a zombie (like in Dawn of the Dead). In some cases, there’s something that infects everyone so that no matter how they die, they becomes zombies (like in The Walking Dead). There are also the zombies created by any blood exchange (e.g. 28 Days Later).
But in Dust Bath Revival, rumors are key more so than stereotypes of zombies. You’re always scared waiting for what’s going to happen, and the more rumors Hank shares, the more paranoid I grew that everyone was trying to kill this teen, who is more keen on kissing Jenny and throwing the deadbolt on thick doors after dark than understanding her setting. Children barely go to school, so no one has a grasp on rhetoric, preventing them from logically sorting fact from fiction.
Because there are so many unproven rumors, at times I wondered if I would be able to discern the truth based on information Hank feeds readers. I couldn’t. At times, Hank makes assumptions, other times she sees proof, then there’s the anecdotal evidence and leaps in logic to suit her reasoning. She’s completely unreliable, but not maliciously so. Mostly, I felt like I was rolling with it and didn’t question Hank’s choices. She is a sixteen-year-old girl living in an apocalyptic world. Since I was living alongside panicked Hank, there were times I couldn’t make a story arc in my head, and the book ends without major resolutions (it does “conclude,” but not wrap up the story). On the cover, we see “Feral Seasons Book One.” Goodreads has a cover and synopsis for book two . . . but it’s not available. When I wrote to Marianne Kirby about it on Twitter, she ignored me. Girl, don’t be like that!
Although I was scared, I was still happy that Hank never lets us forget that she’s a fat teen girl. Her body is described naturally when needed, such as how her stomach feels when she’s close to Jenny or what it’s like to get sweaty in Florida in a fat body. Then, there is the attention Hank has to her uterus. I always wonder why first-person female narrators don’t mention this like cramps or periods, but it dawns on Hank right when she begins to menstruate, and how she ran off without thinking to pack pads — and now she’s out in the woods, talking to a stranger, and she can feel her underpants getting wet. Those sorts of visceral details remind me that many women have this shared experience, and that I’m not alone in it.
A scary novella that skips on the gore, Marianne Kirby has given readers something unique, faithful to the human experience, and exciting to read.