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Book Review: Sip by Brian Allen Carr

“Carr does an excellent job of threading the separate narratives together to create a compelling and exciting story with a cast of wonderfully entertaining characters.”

He won the inaugural Texas Observer Story Prize (judged by Larry McMurtry) in 2011 with his short story, “The First Henley”, and also the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel for his book Motherfucking Sharks (Lazy Fascist Press, 2013). These two awards alone should tell you all you need to know about the range of work of Brian Allen Carr. Between December 2012 and November 2014, he published at least three collections and two novellas–an impressive rate of work by anyone’s standards–and Sip is his first published novel. It has been described as a “post-apocalyptic sci-fi Western” but the themes explored–addiction, friendship and survival–delivered in Carr’s own unique style, means that one short description does it little justice.

The story is set on an Earth gone bad. The demise of the world began with a child exhibiting behaviour similar to someone suffering from rabies. But when the scientists and doctors witnessed him sipping from his shadow, the world changed. As it is with human nature, curiosity got the better of some folk and soon, divisions and factions began to appear between those that succumbed to their shadow addiction and those that abstained. The former became slaves to the taste of their own shadow, getting high on it, some even going as far as to steal the shadows of others, while the latter built massive domes to house their cities and adopted a militaristic and moralistic lifestyle, without natural light. What Carr has created is essentially a post-apocalyptic world without the cataclysmic event. Instead the world has steadily fallen into ruin as half of the world became junkies and the other half became scared.

One group of “Domers” have begun to venture out into the world, protecting themselves with a train that continuously encircles their encampments while they seek to make contact with the other domes. Life within the domes is shown to be regimented and uniform, where everyone has the same haircut and they are all given jobs and rations. But one soldier on the train, Bale, dares to defy his orders and the natural order when he witnesses the intriguing Mira and her mysterious shadow. Mira is a young lady who lives in a small farmhouse and has to care for her mother since the deranged criminal Joe Clover stole her shadow, forcing Mira to “borrow” shade from animals so that her mother can sleep. The premise is original, and delivered with a wonderful style. The way Carr depicts Mira and the burden she feels when having to steal from the animals, and the way she communicates with each species and the difference in the dreams depending on the animal, is nothing short of tremendous. His sentences read like poetry, sometimes dark and often extremely emotive, but always with a rhythm and fluidity that makes the words flow from the page to the reader’s mind.

The story is anything but straightforward. While Bale and Mira find their fates intertwined as they embark on their own adventure, events at the train take a turn for the worse when outsiders known as The Shadowless Army, a faction made up of only women, target the train and lay waste to everyone, leaving only Bale’s brother, Drummond, alive yet imprisoned. Carr gives Drummond his own storyline, allowing for breaks in the main narrative which further highlight the author’s exquisite craftmanship (Drummond’s own quest is at times harrowing and bleak), but also introduces us to the Town of Lost Souls and its terrible inhabitants. This is the setting for the exciting finale as Bale and Mira, along with her childhood friend, the comical shadow-addict Murk, hatch a plan to murder Joe Clover, imprisoned in the town jail by town leader Doc, before the impeding passage of Halley’s Comet. But three members of the Shadowless Army will have their say before the towns fate is sealed.

Carr does an excellent job of threading the separate narratives together to create a compelling and exciting story with a cast of wonderfully entertaining characters. Bale is anything but a mindless drone, exhibiting behaviour that puts him at odds with his superiors and sets him on this path. Mira is enigmatic, seemingly simple yet wise beyond her years and with supernatural gifts that are only hinted at. Murk may come across as comic relief, but his character is deeper than that. The way he delivers the back story (in italicised passages at the beginning of each section) to provide the reader with just enough information to keep them hooked is brilliant. Carr knows he doesn’t need to spell every little detail out to provide a wonderful story. As in life, not everything can be explained and not every series of events comes to a nice, tidy conclusion. But the poetic prose he employs to deliver the story is vibrant and mesmerising. The premise of humans becoming addicted to shadow not only mirrors the horror of a blood-sucking vampire, but also the everyday horror of drug or alcohol addiction, and the degenerative effect on society, taking it to its extreme. Overall, Carr has delivered an exceptionally written and entertaining story with great characters and wonderful language.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Soho Press
Hardcover: 304pp
Release Date: 29 August 2017

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