Amber Dawn
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018
408 pages
ISBN: 978-1551527178

If you could replace the ghost in your lesbian supernatural romance with a living character and nothing substantial changed, you might not be writing a ghost story. Lambda Literary Award-winner Amber Dawn’s second novel is many things – a compelling family drama, a fascinating piece of historical fiction, a thoughtful examination of the scars left by abuse, and a surprisingly sweet romance – but it is not a ghost story.

“It’s not actually more I want. Not like the despairing, compulsive more I usually want. I only want us all to be what we could have been if pain didn’t happen. Is that greedy? To want what’s been stolen? I love this place, these people. I want wholeness for them.”

The novel follows Starla Martin, an emotionally-scarred, self-centred, promiscuous university drop-out who is capable of great cruelty and great kindness. Starla’s tale takes place in 1990 and begins with a homecoming to the sleepy town of Crystal Beach – also Dawn’s hometown – which is less triumphant than she would have hoped. Plagued by debt, her distrustful mother, and the awful weight of failure, Starla finds an escape in The Point, a near-abandoned campground, and the ruins of the town’s torn-down amusement park.

She soon discovers that both are haunted by Etta Zinn, the restless ghost of a dead patron. Starla finds Etta terrifying and alluring in equal measure, and she soon becomes obsessed with the spirit, who is equally obsessed with her. After Etta’s haunting leads a violent alcoholic, Hal, to believe he’s had a religious experience, the pair team up to try to change things for the desperate residents of The Point. However, as the book points out, hope based in lies is “fake hope;” something has to give. As the tension mounts, the reader begins to suspect that that something will be Starla herself.

Despite the novel’s supernatural and horrific elements, it is anchored in very real social ills. Starla is an abuse survivor, still processing what happened to her even as she tries to protect others with similar pain. Her toxic relationship with Etta could just easily be between two living women; what matters is that it brings out the best and worst of both characters. “In my experience, dangerous spirits can only do to us what we’re already doing to ourselves.”

The cast is populated by misfits and outcasts, with a special focus on women whose lives have fallen apart. Starla’s mother Barbara is just as promiscuous as her daughter, insecure about her lack of education, and incapable of understanding her daughter. Hal’s wife Bobby is a First Nations woman who was forced into foster care as a child, lost custody of her daughter, and refuses to seek help dealing with her drunk and abusive husband for fear of losing her son Lucky as well. The rest of the female cast include a grieving mother, a victim of domestic abuse, and an exotic dancer – with whom Starla is slowly falling in love, despite the fact that Etta’s hold over her life grows stronger.

Dawn’s prose is informal and meandering, often blurring the line between past and present and sliding in thematically-relevant anecdotes from her character’s lives. The pages are dotted with references to period-accurate media.

Starla’s narration doesn’t hold back on swearing or brutal detail. It is bluntly sexual territory, and less titillating as a result. Sex is a part of Starla’s life, but not necessarily a healthy one. Sodom Road Exit may not be a ghost story, but it is an enthralling glimpse into the life of a young, troubled queer woman and the community she builds despite herself.

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