Review: The Dash by C.J. Duarte

Claire is a woman in trouble when she falls literally from a ledge into a black and white world in which she is oddly transparent, called Cloak Valley. She wakes up alone, not remembering anything but her name, when she meets the large and surly Art Rukin, who carries her off to meet the people of this strange and dull looking town.

First we meet the Smith (TM) family, a trademarked surname to go with the exacting nature of their flat existence, as well as an impossibly vast range of characters including various families and statesmen, such as a child-trading mayoral candidate and the Des Moines family (probably the most interesting characters coming off slightly vampiric and caricature-ish.) along with a bunch of crooks with Harry Potter-sounding names.

Duarte descends into 700 odd more pages of  adventure writing, but somehow the many subplots become details to a painting of this world imagined, rather than solid plot points. The set and look of the book take over from story and character, overworked, and often taxing to keep in line in any cohesive fashion during the read.

I say descends because there are some issues with two energies one has to indulge in with this piece: firstly it’s exhausting to imagine every scene and character in black and white: not only black and white, but monochromatic. Duarte is very clear no shades should be imagined in between the black and the white as soon as Claire arrives, which means often re-reading incredibly intricate descriptions in order to grasp the color scheme.

There is a plot in here, but it’s so woven and unforgiving it is hard to follow, and several times great chunks of the book (several chapters) laboriously go over a basic scene over and over. Even the characters seem bored. Duarte is loathe to jump ahead for any moment, insisting he should fill in every detail for the reader.

The book took several weeks to read, and not for lack of trying did I find it hard-going – I wanted to like such a long and obviously time-consuming effort. But I often found myself struggling with awkward sentences – an issue in a work that kills off any idea of a narrator floating on top of the writing, like a fourth wall being broken by a continuity error in a movie. Suddenly one is aware of a writer taking brave dives from a board yet too high. I am afraid to report I was lost by the end.

There is however a powerful atmosphere created within this work that feels like being trapped in a nightmare – not a nice, straightforward monsters and ghosts one, but the psychological type where the source of terror is unknown, with implied rape and torture to boot. This could be played upon further to great effect but has not been made the hero of the story, which could have been streamlined and made much more accessible by the use of a cohesive arc and conclusion.

This is no dash. And this is only the first volume. It would be wholly better for the author to edit these tomes into a readable and more accessible work, but I wonder if Duarte would face that with any candor, as he seems lost to the vortex himself. A considerable effort for both the writer and unfortunately, the reader as well.