If you haven’t already read this book and looking at this review you’re thinking TLDR, just know this: Amber Dawn’s latest novel Sodom Exit Road is a brilliant blend of family drama, a queer homecoming, and a good old fashioned haunting. In other words, the small town lesbian survivor ghost story of your dreams!
For those of you who want the glorious and spooky and hilarious details, here we go: Amber Dawn’s second novel is set in the summer of 1990, in a has-been Ontario town called Crystal Beach. It’s the perfect setting for both a haunting and fraught queer-person-returning-to-their-small-hometown journey. Starla Mia Martin has been living in Toronto, where she’s racked up significant student debt despite never having actually graduated. Both the 90s time frame and the extent of Starla’s crushing debt are obvious from the first scene, where Starla is awakened by repeated early morning calls from a debt collection agency on her landline. (Remember those, and how the only way to stop someone from calling you was to yank the phone cord out of the jack in the wall? Good times.)
When you first meet Starla she is also waking up hungover with a one-night stand whose name she cannot remember. I was immediately enamoured with Starla, and I’d challenge anyone not to feel the same way. Here are the opening lines of the novel:
The anonymous woman in bed beside me adamantly shakes my shoulder. She had a name last night. She must have; as part of my hook-and-line, I complimented her ‘pretty name’ and said, ‘it suits you.’ Unless a woman’s name is Mavis, I normally compliment her pretty name.
For the rest of the scene, Starla refers to her date as “Not-Mavis,” and also treats us to many other hilarious observations. When Not-Mavis tells Starla that Starla’s friends Josie and Zed warned her not to try to get a second date out of Starla, Starla thinks “where do Josie and Zed get off? What am I, the dregs of casual sex, bottom-feeder of blind dates? I swear I’m never having another threesome with those two again.”
Starla’s rapidly falling apart Toronto life—in more ways than one—is clearly unsustainable, which is the jumpstart of the plot. After the low point of having to exchange a blowjob for a taxi ride when her credit card is declined (verified by car phone when Starla was hoping the cabbie would just use the old sliding imprinter device with the three-layered piece of paper), Starla reluctantly decides to take her mom up on her offer to move back in with her in Starla’s sleepy hometown, Crystal Beach. Enter mother-daughter drama, resurfacing childhood trauma, a new love interest in the form of an old classmate, and a ghost.
We’ve seen many of these themes before, sometimes in queer lit, but have we ever seen them all queerly together? This was one of the things I loved about this novel. Sodom Road Exit is a wonderful blend of different storylines and genres that you’re probably familiar with, all while making interesting changes to your usual expectations of those stories. In particular it’s the queer survivor perspective in Sodom Road Exit that makes everything feel fresh and new.
Sodom Road Exit is very much in the vein of the wonderful anthology Fist of the Spider Woman that Amber Dawn edited. (Check out my glowing review of Fist of the Spider Woman here). In that collection as well as this novel, the slippery boundaries between fear and (queer) desire are explored intimately. When the hauntings in Sodom Road Exit begin, they share a lot with horror films you know and love (or, maybe, like me, that you know and can’t watch because you’re too much of a chicken). But instead of screaming and running away in horror when she is confronted with the supernatural, Starla is drawn to it. She feels lust. She feels curiosity.
Crystal Beach is the perfect place for a haunting, because as a result of economic downturn, it’s already a bit of a ghost town. What Crystal Beach used to be known for was an amusement park; decades earlier, it was a hot vacation spot. Where people used to scream on thrilling roller coasters and laugh at goofy distorted mirror versions of themselves in the funhouse is now a creepy, abandoned space, devoid of people but still full of the falling apart relics of the past. One of those relics is Etta, a ghost whose perspective Amber Dawn shares with readers by devoting chapters to her, written in the first person. When was the last time you read a book about a haunting that gave you the ghost’s point of view?
While a queer ghost trying to deal with her unresolved issues in Crystal Beach reaches out to Starla, Starla herself is also confronting unfinished business. Being back in the house she grew up in and spending time with her mom is triggering Starla’s memories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of one of her mom’s old boyfriends. There is love there between Starla and her mom, but it is deeply complicated and laced with hurt and resentment. Sodom Road Exit feels as much a book about being a survivor of sexual abuse as a book about being a queer woman. It’s a story of a healing journey as much as it is a queer homecoming.
Speaking of the queer homecoming part, I want to talk about Tamara, who Starla meets at an ill-advised lunch ‘date’ at a strip club with a teenage boy she meets on the bus. After totally stealing this job as a night manager an RV park that she only knew about because the teen boy told her he was on his way to apply to it, Starla agrees to hang out with him afterwards to assuage her guilt. She is not expecting to run into her old classmate, a formerly popular girl named Tamara who now works as a stripper at said strip club. She is also not expecting to find out that Tamara is also a lesbian.
I loved Tamara! I just love the story of two people who weren’t out in high school meeting again as queer adults in their hometown. And Tamara is very funny, totally out of fucks to give, badass, and takes the whole Starla being haunted thing in stride. After their first date, Starla looks around nervously after she and Tamara kiss goodnight on Tamara’s porch. Tamara’s response? “Who’s going to see us? If you’re embarrassed about what people will think, then you probably shouldn’t be dating the town stripper.” She also later sarcastically comments about some of Starla’s worries about truck-driving asshole guys, “If I worried about what assholes think, I’d never leave my house.”
I’ve honestly only scraped the surface of this book so far, but I think that’s a good thing because you’re going to have to read it to find out how all these plot threads are resolved. Will Etta the ghost finally rest in peace? How are Tamara and Starla going to make it work? Can Starla and her mom form a working adult relationship? Friends, Sodom Exit Road is the novel about survivorship, queer love, and ghosts that you need in your life, whether you realize it or not. Get it here.