Benjamin Warner’s new novel Thirst tells the story of Eddie and Laura Chapman, a young middle-class couple who find themselves trapped in a world suddenly deprived of fresh water. The streams and rivers burst into flame and all systems of communication collapsed. Suburban citizens are left to their own survival, forgotten by the cities and emergency workers.
As he makes his way home on foot, a sinister man approaches Eddie for water then stalks him, but the stranger isn’t the worst thing Eddie will soon come to fear. The punishing summer heat ratchets up tensions in his neighborhood as friends bicker with each other over whether to leave or stay. Suspicions rise as friendly gestures are misinterpreted and violence quickly erupts. The Chapmans are at the center of the storm as Eddie’s stress-induced temper curdles Laura’s maternal nature into a maelstrom of hallucinations and childhood fears. Society depends on humanity, but for Eddie and Laura, the brutality they must confront in order to survive will challenge their moral code.
In other reviews, Thirst has been positively compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Ursula K. Le Guin. While I wouldn’t put Warner on the same level as either of those writers, I can see where the inspiration for the comparisons come from. Where Thirst really shines is in Warner’s writing style. The novel is beautifully written with a gripping, heartbreaking tone. He doesn’t just give you a peek into Eddie’s mind, he cracks open Eddie’s skull and shoves you right in the middle of it. The style is visceral and sharp, like a lucid nightmare. If they ever do an audiobook I will definitely check it out; this is a script that begs to be read aloud.
The concept of the story is also intriguing. What would you do if your entire world was upended? How would you react to a major crisis? (Certainly not like Eddie and Laura, I hope.) Can you still be civilized if civilization no longer exists? At what point does crime cease to be and survival at any cost take over?
As entertaining as the story is, there were a few aspects that left me cold. First off, I’m not thrilled with the way gender stereotypes are handled in Thirst. There’s a scene in particular about halfway through the book (or about the second day into the chaos) that crystallizes my concerns: the neighbors form a “council-of-elders” to discuss their options for weathering the unexpected drought, but it is comprised mostly of men. Eddie’s neighbor Mike Sr. invites Eddie and only Eddie to join – the invitation is not extended to Laura. Only the men propose actual plans while two (of the only?) women fret early into it and are shooed outside by the clear-headed men. Those women are never heard from again.
Throughout the novel, men make the plans, do the brunt of the labor, and spend a condescending amount of time trying to keep their snappish, irrational wives calm. Men are objective and unclouded by emotions until things get bad and they turn into bloodthirsty cavemen. There are only two women in the novel who get anything substantial to do in a sea of busy and talkative men, and both are made to commit acts of violence while in hysterics. A couple of other women pop up now and then – including women apparently driven to prostitution and neglecting their children in the space of 48 hours – but for the most part it’s just the two women. Their main purposes are to provide emotional support for their husbands and to suffer to motivate their husbands.
Most of Eddie’s screentime involves obsessing over every little thing Laura does, so much so that I can’t imagine her ever being happy in her marriage before all the fresh water burned up. To me their relationship felt based on teenage romance, not mature love. Eddie continuously lies to Laura out of some warped sense of chivalry and she keeps secrets because she feels insecure about her sexual history. Turns out she was right to not tell him the truth because when she finally does he violates her trust almost instantly.
Eddie is boring, selfish, obsessive, and is too quick to resort to bloodshed while Laura is thoughtful and cautious without being cruel. That is until Warner decides she needs to collapse in a heap of frenzied tears or become inexplicably beset by the need to mother random children. Warner gives Laura a tragic childhood story to support her overprotectiveness, but not only is it a wholly unnecessary reason for a wholly unnecessary personality trait, but it also reeks of fridge-iness.
Thirst has a lot in common with Fear The Walking Dead, for both good and ill. Neither story is interested in the hows and whys of the end of the world but the ways in which we navigate through a new hellscape. I don’t really mind not knowing why all the fresh water vanishes in a ball of fire. If you’ve ever been in a disaster you know how hard it is to get any solid information and how much you rely on the hope that someone who knows what they’re doing is going to show up eventually and fix it. Once you realize you survived, figuring out how to keep surviving takes over. It doesn’t matter what caused the disaster because chances are you couldn’t do anything to stop it from happening again anyway.
Where Thirst and FTWD get into trouble is by isolating themselves in suburbia rather than exploring the world as it falls apart. Obviously something is going on outside their small neighborhoods, but no one ventures out to see for themselves until the absolute last minute. Watching a bunch of white suburbanites huddle up in their middle-class homes isn’t as interesting as either Warner or the FTWD writers seem to think it is. Eddie literally runs past all the outside action multiple times. Pockets of non-Eddie scenes fade in and out in a haze of hallucinations and stress, but mostly we’re stuck in his head just as we’re stuck with the Clarks and Manawas on Fear, aka the world’s least interesting post-apocalyptic family. The lack of worldbuilding hurts both stories, but especially Thirst. I had very little sense of how much distance was covered during Eddie’s treks, how much time was passing, or what was going on outside of his little center of suburbia.
The logic behind the choices the characters make is as fuzzy as the cause of the water shortage. I still can’t tell you why Eddie and Laura decided to stay behind, and that’s the major crux of the book. I mean, saltwater can be made potable, so why not head immediately to the coast? Maybe it’s because I’m Californian and therefore deeply aware of everything water-related that goes on in my state – constant droughts plus killing each other over water rights equals frequent conversations about water – but no way in hell would I sit at home and pretend the world wasn’t coming to an end if I knew the fresh water was gone.
For what it is, Warner’s story is a quick, tense little story about a couple struggling through the end of days. The end comes on a little too quickly with not enough resolution, but the first two acts should hook you in enough to carry you through. I would have preferred a slightly different version of this story, but still works as is. Not everyone will have an issue with the gender roles or character personalities, but they interfered enough for me to knock the book down a few notches. Basically, if you’re hooked by page 50 the rest will be smooth sailing.
Thirst is available now from Bloomsbury.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.