I Am Dust, by Louise Beech – book review

These are hard times, aren’t they? For so many people this is a period of marking time, just muddling through, sitting in secret behind closed doors. We’re all a little bit jumpy and unsure and it can be hard to concentrate.

Cover of I Am Dust by Louise BeechI felt, at first, it was a little difficult to get into I Am Dust. There is a supernatural element to it and that usually isn’t what I read about. I found myself distracted by the news and whatnot. So I left my phone downstairs and turned off background noise. And then I found that I couldn’t tear myself away. I just had to know what was going on. I sat for a few hours, finished the book and then sat some more. There is a punch at the end – there are punches throughout this book – and you’ll need to just take it all in.

Chloe and her best friend Jess and this appalling guy Ryan are in a theatre group for young people, rehearsing Macbeth. They experiment with an Ouija board and things get out of control. Fourteen years later, Chloe is working at the local theatre as an usher when the musical she and Jess loved as teenagers is due to return. This musical, Dust, hasn’t been performed for 20 years, since its star was murdered four days into its first run. This run, we suspect, isn’t going to end well either.

As I mentioned, I don’t normally do stories where ghosts play major roles, but I Am Dust is no mere spookerama. This is a story of love, betrayal and forgiveness, of obsession and rejection. And its characters are muddling through and are jumpy and unsure. Some are marking time. Most promisingly, Beech demands that her characters examine their hearts’ desire. For most of them, it’s the product of muddled if honestly-held emotion. Some of these desires are simple and some are simple-minded; some can’t be admitted and those that can be are riddled with cliche. Not that Beech is judging, mind: she is kinder to her characters than we think at times they deserve and even the mainly-odious Ryan gets a fair hearing. And once we know what they want, we wonder – how can they make it happen and given that so much of this stuff is bluffing anyway how much is real and how much isn’t? And, when it comes down to it, what does it mean to win your heart’s desire and to be destroyed in the process? These are classic themes in literature precisely because they can make for an incredible story. They deliver in Dust.

The whole book is played out in, I think, four locations: the hall where the kids rehearse, Chloe’s home aged 16 (one scene in Jess’s home), Chloe’s home aged 30 and the Dean Wilson Theatre. With a backdrop involving Shakespeare on one hand and bad am-dram on the other, this is an explosive mix. Where better than a theatre to blur the boundaries between reality and mystery: a place of evocative language and a space where dreams are manufactured. A place where everyone has a part to play. In Chloe we have a damaged, fragile lead character with hidden strength – one of the most sympathetically drawn leads I’ve discovered this year. We learn to love the backroom crew from uptight boss Cynthia to camp classic Chester. You were marvellous, we want to tell them, you are. All. Marvellous. When there’s a betrayal with about fifty pages to go we are whacked in the gut, so much are we now invested in these characters. And then the denouement with a twist so outrageous that Beech almost apologises for it. ‘Subtle clues there all along. Scattered breadcrumbs leading them to [the killer] but they didn’t pick them up.’ Outrageous, yes, but completely in keeping with the themes of this novel.

A beautiful, sprawling, heartbreaking tale.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the invitation to be on the blog tour.

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