Amber Dawn comes to her first novel from a respectable career in sex-worker advocacy and post-feminist erotica. Currently program director for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, for more than a decade she's been a creative force behind projects such as the touring Sex Workers Art Show, SKANK (a "smut cabaret") and the award-winning "docu-porn" short film, Girl on Girl.
Sub Rosa chronicles a girl hooked on acquiescence. Not initially a toiler in the sex trade, she's caught teetering on the edge and ready to succumb. Her new emotional captor is Arsen, a mellow-seeming dude with an Italian phallus car and a high-rent beige apartment. He's the sort of guy who imagines that his serial infatuation with peachy young flesh is real affection, even as he's pimping his girls out with nightly quotas. Dawn's scene showing Arsen's first sex with Little is a stark ballet of character revelation. Arsen is slick with control and gentle enough to make Little's compliance feel like consent. The images of the sex itself are spare but riveting, a carnal mime of the deeper human encounter. There's genuine erotic power to the scene, even as we see that it's a first caress in what could be the rape of a entire life.
Dawn then smartly pulls back from expectations. Her tale will not jerk tears or court outrage. She nudges realist narrative into a dream world, where violence comes with surreal power yet leaves no lasting scars. Arsen drives Little and two other worker-girlfriends, First and Second, to a carnivalesque demimonde named Sub Rosa. Little is initiated into the trade. She spends several brutal nights in the Dark, a purgatorial sub-circle of Sub Rosa, where she's raped and beaten while experiencing it all with equable detachment. In the mornings, hardly more than a shower is needed to make her right again. We're pulled inside a fractured fairytale, Little's elaborate inner narrative of denial, where her brutalized mind and body find refuge in fantasy.
More expectations are subverted. Arsen and his tag-team, First and Second, form a family unit of tough love and rivalry, with Little the new junior member. Three prostitutes and a pimp, they nonetheless echo patterns of control and submission found in many a "normal" family. Household banter, sexual rewards, party nights, a place to call "home" - all combine to obscure and mitigate die-cast inequities. We see Arsen as a smooth tyrant, his deputies his emotional puppets, and Little as a self-deluded victim, yet each one of them has vulnerabilities that defy the impulse to judge. It's the cops who are the villains here. Dawn picks apart ingrained habits of censure, reminds us that contempt or smug pity are never productive options.
Lest we feel this is too rosy a picture of pimps and hookers, Dawn keeps the proceedings at a darkly whimsical remove from the real hurts of the world. She knows we know that pain is real, that women are made chattels, that masters are cruel. She's after a larger vision that raises questions about the entire emotionally fraught edifice of our received beliefs about sex, men and women, roles and rights and abuses.
Dawn establishes setting, character and emerging theme with admirable compression, her visuals and dialogue quickly engaging, then stretches her quite simple story arc to more than 300 pages. The book could be trimmed substantially without losing any essential elements. Yet it remains a uniquely rewarding read.
Returning to the Dark, Little seeks the "angel" who saved her from an earlier scrape. A hallucinatory fall through blackness ends with a calming vision of light: "Heaven had a burgundy-red lampshade made of velvet nap paper. Heaven had dust on the bulb. Heaven was a honeyed-pine side table … a shamrock ashtray." Little's sense of a revived and treasured memory is dashed by the image of a wrinkled woman on the bed, "the tread of sadness on her like her whole life had been a boot fight." The scene distills all we've come to know and foresee about Little's station in the world.
Does she escape her station? True to Little's experience, Dawn refuses to break the fantasy. If there is any redemption here, it's the saving gift of imagination.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.