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'Brutes' captures the simultaneous impatience and mercurial swings of girlhood

Cover of Brutes, by Dizz Tate
Catapult

On the first page of Dizz Tate's debut novel Brutes, a 14-year-old girl has gone missing from Falls Landing, Florida, where screams from nearby theme parks ripple through the air and a foreboding lake divides a walled-off development from rundown apartment towers.

The missing girl, a TV preacher's daughter named Sammy Liu-Lou, had lived sheltered behind the development's tall white walls, and her disappearance immediately becomes an event. Women who seem "built for church, in skorts and pastel-colored sweaters" strap on headlamps and strike out into the summer night in search of the girl, avoiding the lake that gleams as black as an oil slick.

But while "Where is she?" repeats throughout Brutes like an incantation, this isn't a book primarily concerned with finding Sammy. Instead, Tate sidesteps the missing girl trope and makes the far more compelling choice to focus her lens on a pack of 13-year-old girls who are used to blending into the background. "No one looks at us and this gives us a brutal power," the girls narrate as one. They watch the town mobilize from their apartment windows the night Sammy goes missing, binoculars affording them omniscience. "We always know where Sammy is," the girls say, but no one would ever think to question them.

Much of Brutes unspools in this mesmerizing first-person plural, in the hive mind of five girls and a queer boy (considered one of them) — Leila, Britney, Jody, Hazel, Isabel, and Christian — who scorch their bare feet as they creep around on "white-hot sidewalks" and take in the town's secrets. They are the titular brutes, who revel in pulling mean-spirited stunts that tighten their bonds. In plunging the reader into the girls' collective perspective, Brutes makes for an original and stylistically ambitious take on the well-trodden subject matter of girls in peril.

Tate perfectly captures the simultaneous impatience and mercurial swings of girlhood, where you feel as if you're growing older by the day but are still left "behind, as invisible to them as air now, little kids with large backpacks." The girls started spying on Sammy out of a desire to step outside of their own lives, which chafe and itch like too-tight restraints. Sammy is not only wealthier and a year older, but she has made some attention-grabbing moves — shaving off her "curtain" of dark hair and joining forces with Mia, whose mother runs Star Search, an expensive program that promises auditions with a Hollywood casting agent. The girls read Sammy and Mia's changing nail polish shades like tea leaves, hoping to crack the code to finally be noticed and chosen for Star Search recruitment: "We squashed our faces against the glass of our own lives. Is this it?...We filled up our days following them, watching them, waiting to be invited in."

As Brutes progresses, Tate intercuts the propulsive chapters of "we" with jumps forward into each girl's singular future, delving into how they are separately haunted by what happened the summer when Sammy disappeared. The first chapter in the first-person singular comes about a quarter of the way through the novel, jarring the reader out of a dream and revealing that the hive mind has not made it out intact. Because the girls aren't much developed as individuals in the "we" chapters — after all, they never want to be alone or to disagree — I found myself flipping back pages for reminders of which one was Hazel, the first girl afforded her own voice. I wondered if the ensemble was too crowded for such splintering. Ultimately, though, these fast-forwards ominously color the action of the novel's present, as the search for Sammy continues, the girls creep closer to Mia, and the dangers and possibilities of girlhood shimmer at the edges.

The one predictable move Tate makes in Brutes? While Mia hands out Star Search business cards to girls she deems pretty enough to model, a sleazy photographer named Stone is the real gatekeeper, and girls win his approval in his gleaming pink house behind the development's walls. Thankfully, instead of detailing Stone's misdeeds, Tate focuses her commentary on how the town's culture has enabled him. In Falls Landing, swampy decay and corruption lurks beneath every veneer.

Far more unusual than Stone, and thus more intriguing, is the polluted lake and its enigmatic role in Sammy's disappearance and the girls' haunting. In its strange stillness and sticky foulness, the lake holds a dark secret of its own. By staining Brutes with the murky waters of the lake, Tate adds depth and welcome weirdness to what might have been a more ordinary nightmare.

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

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