Dizz Tate, whose work has been longlisted for the prestigious Sunday Times Short Story Award and published in the Stinging Fly, brings, in her debut novel, Brutes, an electric, experimental, at times hard to follow coming-of-age tale set in Falls Landing, Florida.
A chorus of teenage girls narrates – our titular “Brutes”, named as such by mothers who “want us to feel bad”. “They called us brutes when we told Christian he shouldn’t be afraid to wear Britney’s skirt to school ... brutes every time they found us setting fire to ant nests ... brutes when we told [our mothers] their boyfriends were perverts, which they were.” The defiant, first-person-plural voice invokes an animalistic pack – dangerous when provoked, fiendishly loyal to the collective, and longing for freedom from the cage of small-town America.
The search for Sammy, a TV preacher’s daughter who goes missing, proceeds alongside the search for the town’s next big star, who is to be whisked off to LA. Sections from a later time period, where the no-longer-teenage girls give first-person accounts of their lives, are interspersed throughout. In the background, markers such as a lake they have “been told since birth never to go near”, a “single finished show home” that has become “a well-known place for love”, a “lake boy” who burns everything in sight, and a fertiliser factory whose smoke “bruises the sky”, create a landscape of danger and stolen promise.
Tension builds as the book alludes to a secret soon to be revealed. “Where is she?” the grown-ups want to know, and the teenage chorus thinks “We know where Sammy is ... We always know where Sammy is.” Tate’s voice is strong – visual descriptions, such as the sky turning “fleshy with sunset”, or “com[ing] closer, like it wants to lie down around the earth”, create an almost psychedelic atmosphere. Ideas such as desire, idolatry, and the exploitation of such desire and idolatry are touched on over and over, perhaps most effectively through the doomed project of the Star Search – its dark underbelly.
But many of the book’s central threads felt confusing, and unresolved. Horror elements, such as a mysterious lake creature, are brought forth, but don’t explain enough. Instead, the work comprises a series of allusions, nods, winks, to something too indirect to decode. Full of intrigue and intensity, Brutes smoulders but doesn’t quite catch fire.