Book review: Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn

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      Published by Arsenal Pulp, 316 pp, $22.95, softcover

      Hidden in plain sight, in a city that bears striking resemblance to Vancouver, lies Sub Rosa. This hypnotic place is where “live ones” flock to see “Glories”, select prostitutes who have disembarked from their former domestic lives. In this quarter, “fine details are easily changed or forgotten” and the uncanny and mundane are enlaced with the sweet and sinister.

      Amber Dawn, in her debut novel, has created a transgressive allegory about the marginalized and missing women who exist, invisibly, in urban centres. She has done this with empathy and restraint, introducing a cast of characters who are ambivalent about the present owing to their fragmented recollections of the past.

      The story is narrated by Little, a teenage drifter who mistakenly believes she is being rescued from a life of vagrancy by a handsome stranger named Arsen. Unbeknownst to her, he has ulterior motives, and shortly after they arrive on Sub Rosa she is forced to collect a “dowry” through prostitution. She completes this initiation in record time, becomes his “third wife”, and emerges as the local It Girl. Life on Sub Rosa, despite its terrifying rite of passage, coasts along.

      This changes when the police appear on its outskirts.

      A “blackout” ensues. The community’s precarious nature is now stifling obvious. This is a world sustained by codependent relationships—between Glories and live ones, between public ignorance and private pain.

      Little embarks on a plan to end the lockdown and, while carrying it out, recovers a scrap of memory from her life outside the demimonde. Mesmerized, she soon learns that she is not alone in having glimpsed previous realities. Questions about what lies beyond Sub Rosa foster a hunger to leave, and Little devises a scheme to run away with some of her fellow Glories.

      Dawn, who lives in Vancouver, coaxes the reader to consider the real people who are rendered anonymous by the milieu of street life. Reminiscent of books like J T Leroy’s Sarah and Harold’s End, and the modern fairy tales of Francesca Lia Block, Sub Rosa is not only a story about the crevices of society, garnished with supernatural elements, but a contemporary parable that articulates larger issues of ostracism, self-defeat, the captivity of prostitution, and the redemptive power of memory.