If this were any ordinary debut novel, it would be easy to simply lavish it with praise. Because this is a good book. It has some fantastically realised characters, the strange future in which it takes place is subtly and skilfully introduced, and the writing, on many occasions, is sumptuous. There are sentences and paragraphs that will leave you breathless. But this isn’t any ordinary debut novel. Its author, Claire Vaye Watkins, bought out a collection of short stories called Battleborn in 2012. That collection, which gained comparisons with the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, and Wells Tower, seemed to herald the arrival of a new literary figurehead. It was up there with the very best collections of recent times. So when an author of such a powerful and widely admired collection as that brings out a novel, it’s likely to face a little more scrutiny than the average debut.
And while scrutinising this work of fiction, it is difficult not to find ways in which it comes up short of its predecessor’s brilliance. Comparisons to the writers mentioned above can still be found, particularly when looking at the majestic sentence structure and Watkins’s way with words, but when it comes to storytelling this book just doesn’t deliver in the way those by her influences do. The scorched land/dry humour juxtaposition in the narrative actually brings to mind another writer. Margaret Atwood. But unfortunately it only reminds us of the less than amazing books that made up the final two thirds of The Year of the Flood trilogy.
Comparisons between those novels and this one are inevitable when you consider the themes of the writing. Like Atwood’s before it, this novel takes place in an America that has been ravaged by environmental damage. Water is at a premium and a stretch of desert-like-land known as the Dune Sea has wiped out many of the villages, towns, and cities that once made up America. Attempting to survive in this violent and heavily controlled new world are Ray and Luz, two loners that found each other after the world had changed. During a trip to the raindance they find a toddler by the name of Ig; undernourished, slightly wild, and in the company of some pretty questionable companions. They decide to take her.
These three characters are superb, and Ig in particularly works as evidence for Watkins’s undoubted talent. It is almost impossible not to fall in love with the toddler. And in this opening section, and more or less all the way to the middle of the book, it is easy to forgive the meandering plot and the lack of narrative drive. You’re in the company of three cracking characters and you’re surrounded by sentences of the highest order. But the novel takes a strange turn at the halfway mark. The three main characters are separated and Luz and Ig end up being taken in by a Dune Sea dwelling cult. Suddenly we have a whole new cast, none of them nearly as interesting or lovable as the first three.
And from that point on it is really quite difficult to put your finger on anything that might realistically be called a plot. So many interesting potential plot points are hinted at – such as Luz’s fascinating past as Baby Dunn and the potential that Ig’s parents could come to reclaim her – but in the end none of them are really addressed. It begins to seem like, away from the short story form, Watkins might be struggling to maintain a cohesive narrative. Which is a shame when the writing shines so brightly.
Any Cop?: To go back to the beginning of the review, it’s probably important to note that if an unknown writer had released this book there might be less of a need to highlight its deficiencies. Instead, excitement about a newcomer who could create such characters and write so magnificently would take centre stage. But Watkins set the bar so high with Battleborn that it’s hard not to see this as a backwards step. Maybe, like Annie Proulx, Watkins is simply a writer more suited to the short story form. Or maybe this backwards step will be long forgotten when she brings out a novel as powerful as any of the stories in her first publication.