Book Review - The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

The Survivalists Plays on Doomsday Tropes while Attempting to Tread New Ground

There's a weird vibe throughout The Survivalists. It pulls back the curtains on survivalists who feel like the end of the world is nigh. But that curtain is surprisingly transparent. What you expect is an examination of the human psyche, what we get doesn't quite delve that far.

When we first meet Aretha, she's gone on too many bad dates. There's always an escape plan. But when she meets charmer Aaron, she's swept off her feet--putting down any strength she had and looking the other way when disaster starts to percolate. Aaron seems too good to be true, but when Aretha goes to his house and sees that he runs a coffee company with guns on the cover, it's apparent Aaron isn't quite perfect. Then when she meet his roommates who are training for the end of the world, she somehow gets sucked into the lurid world of gun selling and soy eating lunatics. The premise here is fascinating and, potentially, unhinged.

That said, it never feels quite zany enough. The supporting cast of survivalists are hard to bare. Brittney is beyond unlikable, and James is somehow even worse. And it's a shame. These characters have rich backstories, but they themselves are never quite fully fleshed out. As details arise, you remain interested, and for what it's worth, author Kashana Cauley never becomes too informational about their past. Instead, she carefully plots out key details that the characters themselves purposely omit. But those point of views from James or Brittney are basically nonexistent, so you never get to feel their impending doom.

It's a shame that the unlikeable characters are so wonderfully built and that the rest comes off too ridiculous or too didactic to ever feel powerful. The main character, Aretha, never fully made sense. While her life as a lawyer is always interesting, and she develops a fascinating arch rival (Mum), the actually survivalist portion of the story is entirely two dimensional. It feels like you're witnessing one of those True Life documentaries on MTV from the early 00s--fascinating to look at, but has the depth of a kiddie pool. 

The hymns of disaster reverberate around the text. You're sort of waiting for the disaster to strike. And undoubtedly it does, but the payoff here should feel more grand. This all feels rushed. Problematically, the disaster itself feels like a whiff. As caches of guns litter the floor, bunkers contain all sorts of unnecessary stocks and everyone's "to-go" bag gets bigger, you expect true explosions. It never happens.

That's not to say it's all bad. Character motivation be damned, Aretha is fascinating. Even as she makes bad decision after bad decision, it's hard to not be mesmerized by this world. And while usually doomsday projectors exist in bum-fuckville West Virginia, this one exists right in the heart of Brooklyn. This sense of impending doom in a populated city is palpable which propelled me through the entire novel. 

As mentioned before, Aretha's life as a lawyer demands your attention, but you can't help but wish that somehow Lawyer Aretha and Survivalist Aretha's paths cross. They never do; instead existing as separates. Even when the parallels are clear, they feel more accidental. I have no doubt a version of this book exists where shit really hits the fan at the lawyer's office.

But that's not this book. Here, it's far more tepid. I'm not mad about my time with The Survivalists, but I just wish it made more sense. Characters do full 180 in personalities in mere pages (and sometimes in a single paragraph). It's not funny enough to differentiate itself, and because it tries to outline every political issue from the last 10 years (BLM, MeToo, climate change, hurricanes, overthrowing the government), it's hard to say it actually makes a point about anything. This is a great option for people who want to see the potential a book has, but if you want something with a satisfying payoff, you might want to look elsewhere. 

The Survivalists
Release Date: January 10, 2023
MSRP: $27.00

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