Review: Sub Rosa, by Amber Dawn

>>Published: April 2010

>>Finally got around to it: December 2010

One man said, “Bury me alive.” He lay on the bed with his arms dead-man crossed over his chest. First knelt at his feet and dropped her body down, little by little. I imagined it felt like heavy clods of sod covering him from the ankles up. She unhooked her bra, and her breasts fell over his face. I heard his gasps, his muffled “yes”; I watched her hold her breath and her body grow even bigger so that not a hint of him was left.

“Do you want to revive our dear departed man here?” First signalled me over as she rolled off of him. His eyes were closed, his skin purple. A smear of semen on his thigh. I blew into his mouth.

“Come toward the light.” What else could I have said as I propped his head on my lap? First nodded in encouragement. “Come to the light,” I repeated in what I hoped was an ethereal voice.

“I’m a new man,” he cried as the colour returned to his skin. I bit down on my disbelieving smirk as he pressed a hundred-dollar bill into my hand. The money seemed alive, like I was holding a baby bird; it pulsed.

***

Memory and identity are at the core of Sub Rosa. Amber Dawn’s debut explores these broad concepts through a densely plotted magical realism narrative of gifted prostitutes called “Glories” whom each have an ability not of this world, the “live ones” that seek to escape from the city—from the Dark—by visiting Sub Rosa every chance they get, and representative fathers and mothers that run their respective houses full of working girls like high society families, respectful of one another in the open while burying their mutual distaste beneath twisted strands of town gossip and ghost stories.

Dawn’s prose is a treat. She writes sparingly, using embellishment only when necessary to create the feeling of a lucid dream when travelling between the Dark and the vibrant, hyper reality of the Sub Rosa strip. She lays out the reality beyond Sub Rosa as a muted, oppressive state of being that siphons the life of young, runaway girls, or threatens the survival of an unfortunate Glory who, because of the protection of Sub Rosa, is unprepared to deal with the harshness of a reality that they’ve forgotten over time.

As beautiful and loving as the prose may be, it only serves to accentuate the dark allegory of Sub Rosa as a subversive Neverland, where a prostitute can work safely, so long as she plays by the rules and stays within the hidden realm. To take oneself out of Sub Rosa is to throw one’s life away to ambling, zombie men who can only take and salivate, no matter the cost to a young girl’s life. But to remain in Sub Rosa, is to discard the memories and identity of one’s past—a sacrifice which, in many ways, becomes the core question of the book: are safety, security and comfort worth the cost of burying the past without having to first confront it? It’s an interesting question, one that guides the main character, Little, through the connections and risks she decides to take in the latter half of the 317-page novel.

Sub Rosa is wonderfully immersive, moves at a very fast pace, and is filled with so many magical, tantalizing visual metaphors that it leaves you feeling a little drunk by the end. As a debut, it marks the arrival of one hell of a talented storyteller, and I’m eager to see what she does next.

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