Coral is the first person to discover her brother Jay's dead body in the wake of his suicide. There's no note, only a drably furnished bachelor pad in Long Beach, California, and a cell phone with a handful of numbers in it. Coral pockets the phone. And then she starts responding to texts as her dead brother. Over the course of one week, Coral, the successful yet lonely author of a hit dystopian novel, Wildfire, becomes increasingly untethered from reality. Blindsided by grief and operating with reckless determination, she doubles—and triples—down on posing as her brother, risking not only her own sanity but her relationship with her precocious niece, Khadijah. As Coral's swirl of lies slowly closes in on her, the quirky and mysterious alien world of Wildfire becomes enmeshed in her own reality, in the process pushing long-buried memories, traumas, and secrets dangerously into the present.
While this new book shows [Blackburn] moving to more spacious realms, it’s built with the same meticulous craftsmanship of her shorter works. Her sentences zing with lively precision ... Blackburn’s idiosyncratic grief novel is as freshly devastating as they come.
Channels grief’s staggering capacity ... At its best, the authoritative and bizarre voice of the guides gives the book a playful quality that keeps it buoyant ... Coral often feels peripheral to the book’s formal pyrotechnics. Her passivity faintly contrasts with the agency of the gun-toting, unnamed hero of her own book, but Blackburn does not build on this polarity. The character is less a foil and more a shadow, visible only at fleeting angles. Grief tends toward incoherence, but our stories about it still need some shape if they are to be affecting and compelling. Dead in Long Beach, California works as a moodboard, but beneath its stylish sentences and unorthodox structure, there’s more void than vision.
Through the chorus, Blackburn brings us back to something inherently true about anyone experiencing this kind of loss: Our grief may seem singular, it may seem like it belongs solely to us, but that’s not exactly true. Grief is part of a larger system that connects us all to one another, and what we do with it, how we handle it, and what becomes of us after is not always fully in our control ... It’s a masterful feat of storytelling for Blackburn to constantly make the reader feel as if Coral is coming full circle, only to remind us she can’t ... We’re left with a profound and surprising demonstration of how there’s no way to fully outrun or outmaneuver or out-strategize the pain of loss. Even when we truly believe we can, the despair and disrepair of the loss will bring us to our knees and turn us in on ourselves. And although the idea that we don’t move beyond grief, we only learn to live with it is common, Blackburn’s debut novel provides a new vision of just how true this is, making that truth feel brand new again.