‘Tarry This Night’ by Kristyn Dunnion

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Jonathan Valelly

The phrase “world-building” has come in and out of vogue for years. In short, it describes the creative process behind those highly detailed typologies and maps that serve as the foundation of fantasy novels like Tolkien’s, the endless trivia of the Star Wars universe, or the core principle of popular video games like Minecraft. It smacks of magic, imagination and expansiveness. In Kristyn Dunnion’s latest speculative-fiction novel however, world-building becomes a slow, highly charged exercise in dim claustrophobia.

Tarry This Night tells the story of a tiny cast of cult members hidden in an underground bunker in the not-too-distant future, barely subsisting on gruel made from a dwindling supply of rotting oats and the occasional trapped rat. The group is led by the charismatic and controlling Father Ernst, the group’s patriarch and spiritual leader. The Family, as they’re called, busy themselves with menial chores and daily readings from Ernst’s Doctrine, a conservative and apocalyptic expansion on Christianity. The Doctrine promises an eventual ascension, at such a time as God sees fit to deliver the invitation to Ernst. But The Family grows weary and strained as their supplies run out.

To explain how exactly the Family came to be in this predicament, or what happened to the world outside, Dunnion skillfully restrains herself from introducing too many episodes from the past, explanations between characters, memories of headlines—the typical clues. Rather, she allows the internal narration from the characters, wracked by guilt, fear, and confusion, to form a slow trickle of information and beliefs that begin to suggest that the Family are not simply a strange breed of survivalists. Rather, we learn that they may in fact be the terrorist sect responsible for the racial civil war unfolding aboveground, and keeping them below.

Dunnion delivers a tactful balancing act, blending cult psychology, the politics of polarization and racial resentment and traditional speculative fiction. Dunnion allows the reader entry into each sect member’s mind and experience, however untrustworthy, fraught, or even hallucinogenic it may be. It is significant that the majority of the surviving characters are women, many of them Ernst’s wives, children, or, increasingly as the novel progresses, both. The abusive chauvinism of the patriarch is counterpointed by the solidarity and caring between women as well as the competition Ernst sows between them. Subtleties of communication and power dynamics, glimpses into fleeting and hyper-specific ways of knowing between these women give a profound and sometimes mystical quality to Dunnion’s narration. The book is sternly feminist and, in moments of seamless inclusivity, queer-positive as well.

There are also glimpses aboveground, as Paul, one of the few remaining men in the Family, scours the nearby forest for food to bring back. Full of interesting factoids and tidbits describing practical skills, these sequences are deliberately paced and increasingly exciting, as more details are gradually revealed about what’s left of America. While survivalist fiction can sometimes overburden the reader with details about rope-tying, crop rotation and guns, Dunnion falls shy of that limit, and instead shares a compelling in-the-moment thought process that blends Paul’s anxieties, memories and spiritual lapses to drive the narrative forward.

Elaboration of a religious doctrine is perhaps a more traditional world-building motif. Dunnion uses it as an exercise in establishing mood, writing hymns of fire and brimstone: ”Smite the wicked, set them bound / And burn the heathens to the ground!” Though sometimes cheesy (as hymns can be), the bits of song and Doctrine text damning outsiders and glorifying the Family feel increasingly ironic when set against the suffering and pain in every corner of the bunker. Other artistic pursuits  appear fleetingly, disobediently, such as the charged, iconographic quilting by Rebekah, one of the younger women troubled by visions and her secret relationship with Paul. Mystic and dark, these glimpses of creativity, symbols and rebellion punctuate and give texture to the novel.

While Tarry This Night takes place over the course of roughly a week (it’s hard to determine precisely how long), it reflects and outwardly refracts the centuries of tension, inequality, exceptionalism and religion that belie America’s semi-stability today—and the scary potentialities of its future. It’s reminiscent of other near-future fiction, sure. Atwood’s The Year of the Flood comes to mind. But there’s something very contemporary about the situation Dunnion writes. While it intentionally leaves much unexplained, it also taps at something we all know. The political and environmental forces around us are seizing toward something big and complex, something scary, something that could drive us, with all of our differences and our desperation, deep into underground bunkers if we don’t reckon with it all soon.

Arsenal Pulp Press | 258 pages | $16.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1-551527055

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Jonathan Valelly

Jonathan Valelly is a writer, editor, and community artist based in Toronto.