Gently disturbing fantasy drama in the American desert
I spent the first hundred pages of this novel by Sarah Beth Durst wrestling with the anticipation that the story would lurch into overfamiliar thriller territory, or unoriginal fantasy. A woman distraught over her mother's illness and tired of her small life impulsively drives out into the desert where she finds herself stuck in a nightmarish town of lost souls and confusing behaviour. This setup could have been the lead-in to either an action thriller or a straight-up fantasy of alternate dimension travel cliches. Yet her tale kept wrong footing me neatly, quietly and confidently treading its own path, and more importantly, speaking in its own voice. By the time I realised I was deep into the book I also realised I was deeply involved with her central character's journey and had long forgotten my reservations.
That is not to say the book is without flaws. In living each second through the eyes of the protagonist Lauren, Durst drags us through some occasionally repetitive first-person thoughts which I found rather wearing : "I wonder what a horror-movie heroine would do"; "If I want to find my way home to Mom, I have to stay alive long enough to do it". Yes, we know mate, we are reading the story. A little more acceleration through these moments would have helped the energy of the tale. However, how much such a change might have diminished the emotional connection to Lauren is enough to make me look back on the book now and feel Durst knew exactly what she was doing. No Hemingway then, but no need to be either. The time she takes to describe each situation and all of Lauren's reactions, external and internal, to them means her tale takes on a languid, hypnoptic disposition that suits the mystery at the heart of the drama and the other-wordly oddness of the town called Lost.
The town and its inhabitants, including little lost child Claire, the magnetic yet dangerous Peter and the elusive Missing Man, packs of feral kids with knives and vicious dogs, to name a few, make for compelling intruders on Lauren's isolated situation and indeed her isolated personality. This is a woman who is herself 'lost' and the town's power, without spoilers, ties in to this. Whilst Durst entertains with images of abandoned houses appearing stranded in the dirt overnight, lunch-boxes of rotten fruit or a barn full of lost masterpieces of art, it is in Lauren she chiefly cares about and expertly ensures her readers do too. Lauren is no bland hero however; her stubbornness and mistrust are well displayed and she is someone at times you can relate to more than necessarily like. I would have enjoyed a little more outlandishness to the action, a little more insanity to some of the scenes, but I loved the focus and restraint and the careful depiction of a fellow human in crisis.
Ending with a lengthy episode that threw me somewhat, which I won't reveal, the author threatened for me at least to lose the tension at the centre of the plot, despite some very moving and believable scenes. However Durst then whips the action back for a final haunting moment which reveals itself as the cliffhanger on which this planned trilogy will continue. 'The Missing' is to follow later in the year, and 'The Found' next, and I'll be waiting to be taken back to the desert when they appear from the dust storm's void...
Baseline Assessment : 7/10
Bonuses : +1 for wrongfooting me and choosing emotion over shallow action.
Penalties : -1 for perhaps taking a little too long to get going.
Nerd Coefficient : 7/10 a mostly enjoyable experience (find out how our scores work here)
Durst, Sarah Beth. The Lost [Harlequin/Mira Books, 2014]
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POSTED BY : English Scribbler, sci-fi and fantasy fella and London-dweller, and Nerds contributor since 2013.