Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Obscura Burning, by Suzanne van Rooyen

The exquisitely written and deftly plotted Obscura Burning, by Suzanne van Rooyen, delivers readers into that dreamlike state immediately proceeding shattering emotional trauma; the kind that forces you to pick up the event’s fragments and piece them together with a sense of shutter-eyed fascination over “What really happened?” tempered with “Do I really want to know?” I met the author at a book reading at FinnCon 2014 in Finland and I’m so glad I did, otherwise I’d have missed buying her exquisite novel.

My reading experience made me recall Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing process for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The two authors and their works share little resemblance (Obscura Burning’s plot is more reminiscent of dark urban fantasy millennial movies like Butterfly Effect and Vanilla Sky, mixed with Donnie Darko, Melancholia and Groundhog Day), but the purgatorial sense of being trapped between realities and mental states until a difficult choice is made recalls how Stevenson reportedly conceived his classic tale from a nightmare, and then he revisited and nurtured his nightmare night after night into a coherent narrative—dream-drafting, you might call it. Indeed, the dream logic rabbit hole that Obscura Burning launches readers into steadily transmutes into a freight train chugging along crooked tracks of well-researched science fiction logic and real world emotion towards impending apocalypse, as we follow protagonist Kyle comprehend the details of a tragedy that killed his lover, or their best friend, or neither or both, depending on the periodicity whims of the mysterious planet Obscura that rose in the sky the day of the tragedy.

Upon turning the final page of Obscura Burning, I found that the story, its characters, and especially its climax lingered, haunting me all the way to my own dreams the following night, when I had an Obscura-inspired nightmare. Folks, when a novel drills that deeply into your psyche, you know that something rare and excellent has been achieved.

In reading the sad, thrilling, enigmatic, and deeply psychological scenario of competing realities, I was lulled into a state of consciousness that straddled dream, nightmare, and vivid fantasy by Rooyen’s beautiful, elegant writing style – replete with cliché-free imagery and metaphor and analogy – and her masterful plotting. The novel’s philosophical underpinning is powerful but subtle, and it corkscrews so effectively that its plot twists are both unexpected and satisfying.

At first, the novel seems to slide more into psychological horror territory with its preoccupation on grief and the notion of free will and choice. Kyle, the protagonist, a closeted gay pyromaniac from the wrong side of the tracks and with a penchant for self-harm, is racked by guilt guilty over the (on-again-off-again) deaths of his lover and their best friend, the details of which are hazy to him and them both. As he learns that a momentous choice he and they made coincides with the date that the time-warping mysterious planet, Obscura appeared in the sky, his feelings are further complicated. He realizes that the fate of  his friends-and perhaps the world-- rests on his choices, past and future. In short, he recognizes that it’s not all about him; that even though his life is hard, people around him are still affected by his choices. It’s a powerful moment we all face at some point in our late teens, and it’s rendered with powerful clarity here.

But then Obscura Burning corkscrews, the way a dream can shift in one night. Now it’s not all about choice. It’s about science and time travel and the multi-verse. And then it’s not all about that, either. It’s about love and friendship, it’s about redemption and responsibility, and something else and then something else again that would be a spoiler to mention.  Through Kyle’s dark, poetic soul we must figure out what is most essential in love and life in order to stop a cataclysm promised by the burning blue planet that will rise closest to Earth on July 4th. The sense of doom is nerve-wracking as the calendar pages flip forward and backward, closer to and further from that date.

The characters are in their late teens and dealing with death, sexuality, poverty and impending apocalypse, so this novel is for the older set as well as for anyone who appreciates good writing and a good psychological mystery within their dark urban fantasy. 

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