Sometimes, when I give a book a middling rating, it means the book was middling throughout. This is not one of those times. I intensely disliked the first half of Dust, and it took me about a month to get through it. The second half, I loved, and read in one day.
Dust’s greatest strength — and also its greatest drawback — is that Joan Frances Turner writes description extremely well. She has the gift of evoking that one perfect image that puts you right there in the character’s mind: a dimly remembered strawberry, or a lost connection described as:
a light shining from a farmhouse window on some dark, empty highway, streaking brightly across your windshield as you drive past, and then fading. And then gone.
It becomes a drawback when Turner conjures up, with the same skill, the imagery of human decomposition. Readers with cast iron stomachs may not mind, but many others will feel physically ill throughout much of Dust. It was a little too much for me, I confess.
Turner’s undead, who prefer not to be called zombies, are sentient and have an entire culture of their own. They communicate via radio waves when their mouths and throats can no longer form words. They have their own life cycle, starting when they tunnel up from the grave, continuing through the stages of decomposition, then culminating in a second death. It’s easy to feel pity for the undead, who retain their mental and emotional capacities but whose bodies are rotting and whose loved ones feel nothing but revulsion if they meet again. Yet this thinking is something of a trap, it turns out; many of the undead are content with their lot and don’t want their old lives back, and one human goes to appalling extremes in an attempt to “fix” someone who doesn’t want to be fixed.
Dust contains plenty of thought-provoking material, echoing several real-life controversies while (thankfully) not paralleling any one issue so closely that the book becomes a polemic. The thought-provoking elements, however, are drowned out during the first half of the book by the nauseating descriptions and by too much senseless violence. The heroine, Jessie, is in a gang, and she and her friends are constantly involved in bullying, gang hazing, intergang turf wars, and the like. I could, in a way, understand the frustrations that fueled the aggression, but I still had trouble liking the characters. The grossness hampered my experience, too, by causing me to read less closely than I should have been reading. Turner doesn’t spoon-feed anything. Many of the character conflicts are implied between the lines, and the world-building is subtle. For example, it’s clear that Turner’s world is not quite the world we know, but we’re not explicitly told when and where the divergence took place. If you “step back” from the story because it’s about to make you lose your lunch, you may miss something important in the process.
At about the halfway point, Dust really sank its teeth in, pardon the bad pun. I don’t want to spoil the plot twists, but I’ll say that the gang warfare largely falls away in favor of science-gone-wrong and beautifully written musings on the nature of life and death, family and friendship. There’s still plenty of unpleasant imagery; this is easier to take, though, once the plot starts moving more quickly and the characters become more fleshed-out, plus now the icky moments are interspersed with passages of lovely prose like the one quoted above. Jessie’s plot arc is compelling, and so are the little glimpses Turner gives us of the world outside Jessie’s immediate frame of reference. So much can be conveyed by a brief mention of a skyline looking wrong.
I closed Dust with a feeling of satisfaction and an appreciation for Turner’s craft. It would be inaccurate, though, to claim that I enjoyed the book all the way through, hence the rating. Dust is worth reading (especially the second half), but to get to the best parts you’ll have to go through a lot of stomach-turning imagery. Your mileage may vary.