SUB ROSA by Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp), 317 pages. $22.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
Nothing is what it seems in Sub Rosa, Amber Dawn's stunning debut novel about underground sex work.
The story begins in the ravaged core of an unnamed big city where homeless teenager Little is barely getting by. She lives on handouts from creepy guys who treat her like an object, and her virginity is her only currency.
When Arsen, a slick older man, plucks her out of hell and promises to make her a star in mysterious red-light district Sub Rosa, Little feels chosen and accepts. Dawn skilfully evokes the desperate, hopeful mindset of a girl longing to be rescued.
Descriptions of Sub Rosa unsettle like a fairy tale gone wrong. Plain girls become beautiful overnight, and the streets resemble Old West back lots. "Glories" - young tricks in lace Communion-type dresses - bait adult customers who cruise the district, immune from police harassment.
The district's complex social world, where making money is never the same thing as control, is fascinating as well.
The plot picks up speed when Little discovers just how illusory Sub Rosa's charms are. Through a number of twists, she gets her feminist groove on and takes charge of her life.
In her narrator, Little, Dawn has invented a totally original character. She's articulate and lucid, and even if we sometimes wish for more backstory, she's got attitude that makes the book impossible to put down.
But the writing is the novel's ultimate treat, a combination of sweetness and fierceness that crosses genres and defies expectations. Channelling Evelyn Lau's realism, Thomas Hardy at his most macabre, and the Brothers Grimm, Dawn's style - part documentary and part magical realism - makes Sub Rosa totally enthrallin.
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