It’s been far too long since I last reviewed one of the excellent books published by Orenda Books – my apologies everyone, it’s quite unforgivable of me. But if there’s one author who will always tempt me back, it’s the wonderful Louise Beech. It’s a real pleasure today to share my review of I Am Dust, her latest, published as an e-book on 16th February by Orenda Books, with the paperback to follow on 16th April (available for pre-order – go on, what are you waiting for?!). Karen Sullivan knows how I unfailingly love Louise’s writing, and I’d like to thank her for my advance paperback copy: I read the kindle version I purchased on release day, just to make my reading experience a little easier.
Louise Beech is the unquestionable queen of… well, of many things really, but particularly of the exceptional ability to reinvent herself entirely for every book she writes. I adored her first, How To Be Brave (you’ll find my review here), and it might just still be my personal favourite. But “favourite” is just a relative term – The Mountain In My Shoe (review here), Maria in the Moon (review here), The Lion Tamer Who Lost (review here – mmm, maybe that was my personal favourite after all?) – every book was simply amazing. And then came Call Me Star Girl, the “all-consuming psychological thriller” I thought I might find difficult (review here) – but then included as one of my books of the year, as I have ALL of her books. So, I was looking forward again to this one very much: the only thing that worried me a little (because I am a bit of a wuss) was the mention of “eerie” and “haunting”. Could I possibly love it? Oh yes, of course I could!
A haunted theatre
A murdered actress
Three cursed teenagers
A secret that devastates them all…
The Dean Wilson Theatre is believed to be haunted by a long-dead actress, singing her last song, waiting for her final cue, looking for her killer…
Now Dust, the iconic musical, is returning after twenty years. But who will be brave enough to take on the role of ghostly goddess Esme Black, last played by Morgan Miller, who was murdered in her dressing room?
Theatre usher Chloe Dee is caught up in the spectacle. As the new actors arrive, including an unexpected face from her past, everything changes. Are the eerie sounds and sightings backstage real or just her imagination? Is someone playing games?
Is the role of Esme Black cursed? Could witchcraft be at the heart of the tragedy? And are dark deeds from Chloe’s past about to catch up with her?
Not all the drama takes place onstage. Sometimes murder, magic, obsession and the biggest of betrayals are real life. When you’re in the theatre shadows, you see everything.
And Chloe has been watching…
This book is an absolute triumph – in its originality, its construction and characters, its atmosphere, its beauty and intensity. Unusually, I’ve been reading some of the early reviews before writing my own – I was just intrigued to see the reactions of others – and I’ve noticed a repetition of the word “delicate”. And that word is really so apt – there’s much of the quality of fine old lace about it, in the intricacies of the story, in its emotional layering and nuances, in its layers of encrusted dust and shadows.
I really loved the way the whole book was structured, with its loosely alternating timelines. We see Chloe and her two “friends” back in 2005, in an empty hall after rehearsals for a youth production of Macbeth, playing their dangerous and frightening game, much of its detail later buried deep in their memories: and then we have the near-present day story of the revival of the musical Dust at the theatre where Chloe is now an usher, an earlier production having been halted by the murder of its star, in her dressing room, the culprit never having been identified.
The earlier timeline is fraught with fear and an all-pervading sexual tension, and I will admit that – although entirely enthralling, and so superbly written (or maybe because of that) – I did find some of it quite difficult to read. I can only put that down to personal memories, deeply buried, that resurfaced as I read and found particularly disturbing. But there’s really nothing particularly overt or graphic – some guttering candles, a few glimpses through the curtain of memory, and a thickened atmosphere you can feel with every fibre and (rather aptly) cut with a knife.
That atmosphere does pervade the present day story too, particularly backstage – but as well as those echoes from the past, there’s also a focus on Chloe in the present day, her work in the theatre, her relationships and her troubled life. That balance is absolutely perfect, as the past begins to reverberate into the present, and the legacy from the past and the unsolved mystery inexorably drive the story forward.
Chloe herself is just mesmerising – damaged, distinctly broken in many ways, lacking in self belief, writing her own play with its stunning imagery, never yet having achieved her full potential. I very much enjoyed the insights into her life as part of the theatre, her relationships with others (Chester is a particularly strong character, and brings some humour), her spikiness and sharper edges. And I loved her bravery – the way she faces her fears, exposes her softer parts, feels her hurt.
If you love the theatre, this book is a glorious gift, with its glimpses of backstage life that you never usually get to experience. There’s plenty of the glitz and glamour, but also a substantial look at the dirt and dustiness that the glitter conceals.
And as always, the author has an emotional touch – an exquisite tenderness and sensitivity – that absolutely takes my breath away: I was quite hollow inside when I reached the book’s final pages, and they entirely broke my heart. I will admit that this might not have been a book I’d have naturally chosen to read, but its sheer power, beauty and emotion will stay with me for a very long time.
About the author
Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The follow-up, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Both of her previous books Maria in the Moon and The Lion Tamer Who Lost were widely reviewed, critically acclaimed and number-one bestsellers on Kindle. The Lion Tamer Who Lost was shortlisted for the RNA Most Popular Romantic Novel Award in 2019. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice.
Louise lives with her husband on the outskirts of Hull, and loves her job as a Front of House Usher at Hull Truck Theatre, where her first play was performed in 2012.