BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
After reading Nathaniel Kressen’s debut novel, "Concrete Fever" (2011, Second Skin Books), I was utterly entranced by his ability to skillfully weave together a compelling story. This is also why I was absolutely thrilled to find out Kressen’s second book "Dahlia Cassandra" was released this past June, also by Second Skin Books.
Unlike in his first novel, which is set in post-9/11 NYC, his second novel is centered around two siblings who have been abandoned by their parents on their farm in rural Idaho. It is a bleak beginning—nothing grows, they are deserted in a place where they don’t have money or access to much food, cell phones, and social interaction. The brother and sister duo, Tike and Junior, are emotionally isolated in many ways because of this. In a way, the novel is about loneliness—and what happens if loneliness is left unchecked for too long.
The story quickly becomes a subtle thriller when a writer, who does "method writing" arrives in town with his younger girlfriend in tow. The writer quickly preys on Junior, whose own sexual encounters have been limited and unfulfilling, and leads the boy into a romantic escapade that leads to Junior’s breakdown. Tike watches from the sidelines—her own sexual growth also bubbling underneath the surface. What I love most is the fact that Kressen isn’t hiding from sexuality, but rather, exploring it within all its various nuances. Stoli, the writer’s girlfriend, isn’t really his girlfriend, as we discover—but something far more ambiguous and complicated for many to understand.
The novel is far more about the characters’ development than the action of the book—which works to the book’s benefit most of the time. For instance, Tike and Junior begin as rather simple characters—but quickly, I was entranced by what Junior would do next. Like Tike, I didn’t recognize the boy we started off with at the beginning of the novel. Because of this—and because of Kressen’s straightforward aesthetic—the book moves quickly. This technique lends itself to being a thriller, in that it’s sometimes hard to keep up with, as if you’re in the thick of the action. But I’m never bored—and I hate being bored.
The book also comes out, sadly, at the right time—when there is controversy in our own literary community over the intentions and actions of writers who abuse their power for their own gain. It makes us question our own authority—and what it means to exploit others—and ourselves. For me, as a woman, I appreciate this, and loved watching Tike’s progression from a naive girl to a confident woman—which is a direct foil to Stoli, who starts off as strong and sexy and independent, and ends up as self-destructive and damaged as her abuser.
If you’re looking for a compelling read this summer, I definitely recommend "Dahlia Cassandra," as it is a complicated nuanced read in our post-internet world—and what it means to grow up lonely and alone—and how to open yourself up to the possibilities of love.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications) & Xenos (forthcoming 2017, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She has lead workshops at Brooklyn Poets.