I have to admit to being a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic novel, so the premise of Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel ‘Gold Fame Citrus’ had me instantly hooked. Desert sands have laid waste to the south-west of America and the vast, rolling waves of the Amargosa Dune Sea have left California, and anyone still living there, stranded. Luz and Ray, survivors of the Mojave population, are not leaving. They survive on water rations, black market food and each other. Then Ig explodes into their fragile lives. Two years old, undernourished and wild, Ig needs Luz more than anyone ever has before. So Luz and Ray steal her and now the only way to survive is to escape the wasteland. Venturing into the dark heart of the Amargosa, Luz and Ray must hunt for a better life for themselves and for Ig. For in the middle of the dunes, there is supposed to be a camp of believers. And they are supposed to be led by a man who can find water.
From the outset of the novel it is clear that, whilst the setting is post-apocalyptic, Watkins is more concerned with exploring the frontiers of the heart than the desert frontier that her characters find themselves in. There is a surprising lack of world-building in the first part of the novel and, at first, I did find myself struggling to understand what was going in. Watkins throws terminology (Mojave, Amargosa, Raindance) around without ever really explaining it and, at first, I felt bombarded with words and situations without anything to ground me in the world of the novel. It also doesn’t help that, at the start of the book at least, Ray and Luz are also frustratingly bland characters, their sole purposes in life to be needed and to be needy respectively.
Get over the first third of the book however and ‘Gold Fame Citrus’ really takes flight. From the discovery of Levi - a prophet-like dowser - and his camp of followers who roam across the desert, moving with the rhythms of the Dune Sea; the novel turns into an examination of the myths that we tell about ourselves and others, the fiercely selfish things that we will do to survive and the ways in which the will to survive leads both the needed and the needy to exploit those around them. Luz in particular, develops enormously as a character as we see her struggle (not always successfully) to develop her own place in the world, one in which she is no longer simply a dependant of those around her. Levi is also an interesting character, both charming and sinister all at once and it is easy to see how he has gathered followers around him, with his romantic tales of the Amargosa and the life it contains.
Watkins’ writing throughout ‘Gold Fame Citrus’ is undoubtedly literary. Her prose is often bare, even verging at times on the vulgar (if you’re not a fan of the f-bomb, the c-bomb and purple prose sex scenes, this might not be the book for you), but for the most part it is effective in conveying her meaning and themes. Sex features prominently in the book for example, and Watkins’ doesn’t hold back in her portrayal of this, but it is always used cleverly as a way for characters to connect with each other in ways they cannot seem to reach though words. It serves a purpose, and it’s often not a romantic one, and is very skilfully done. Unfortunately, other passages do not work quite as well. There are many lists – whole paragraphs or pages where a character is reciting everything they can see or can remember – and this gets terribly dull after a while. And sometimes you can’t help but wish that Watkins would just use a simple word instead of regurgitating a dictionary.
Ultimately ‘Gold Fame Citrus’ was a really mixed bag for me. If I hadn’t been reading for review, I doubt whether I would have made it past the first 100 pages, which I really don’t think work as an opening; but I did very much enjoy the latter stages of the book when it became apparent what Watkins was doing with her characters, her world and her overarching themes. Luz and Ray aren’t likeable protagonists but they become very human, especially Luz, and it is worth sticking with them and becomes very interesting to watch them both develop in unexpected ways. And whilst the language and style didn’t always work for me, Watkins can clearly write, and write extremely well. I’d certainly read more from her in the future, even if ‘Gold Fame Citrus’ wasn’t for me, an unmitigated success.
‘Gold Fame Citrus’ by Claire Vaye Watkins is published by Quercus and is available now in hardback from all good booksellers and libraries. My thanks go to the publisher and to the Real Readers scheme for supplying me with a copy of the novel in return for an unbiased review.