Do you think you’re a good person?
That might seem like a strangely invasive question to begin a book review with but the truth it is wholly germaine to the salient ideas that fill Katya de Becerra’s illuminatingly creepy (in all the best ways) new novel, Oasis.
For while on the surface Oasis is the story of five friends from Melbourne who, on a visit to an archaeological dig near Dubai, are caught up a fierce sandstorm that transports them out into the desert where death seems a certainty until they come across a mysteriously lush oasis, it is also an intensely insightful exploration of just authentic we are with others and how honest we are with ourselves about our flaws and deepest, darkest desires.
Or even desires that on the surface seems wholly laudable, virtuous and good and yet which, if granted all at once, begin to seem self-serving and hollow.
If you had asked close high school friends (they have just graduated) main protagonist Alif (her dad is the archaeologistin charge) or her close friends Lori, Minh, Rowen and Luke if they were good people and if they only wanted the best for each other before they flew to Dubai, you would have received a resounding “Yes”.
In the relatively benign surrounds of life in one of Australia’s most beautiful cities, there was very little to challenge such an idealised self-view since while life can be tough in high school, it doesn’t tend to bring on wholly transformative existential crises.
At least not the kind that have the propensity to kill you or somehow steal your soul.
“A powerful gust of wind slammed into my back. It hurt so badly it was like I was in the center of a black hole, compacted and torn apart apart at once. Tommy turned to see what was happening, and I couldn’t stop watching his face as it darkened with understanding. his eyes were beautifully tragic, reflecting the strange blackness creeping up over us. This was the last thing my mind captured as a memory from that night. A suffocating shadow crawled over me. Then chaos reigned.” (P. 86)
But that is pretty much what happens when the sandstorm upends their cosy summer time trip, which was only supposed to be about cleaning and cataloguing discoveries and cooking in the kitchen but suddenly becomes a desperate struggle for survival when the sandstorm sweeps them far away from the camp.
Suddenly they are facing everyone’s worst nightmare – being stranded in the desert with no food or water and no sense of how to get back to their temporary home.
Then out of nowhere, literally where nothing should be growing, springs an oasis so perfectly formed that it can only be some sort of artificial construct.
Alif, and her father’s research assistant Tommy (on whom she has a crush) who was swept away with the five friends, are aware something is distinctly off but they and the others are too hungry and thirsty to care, and repress any misgivings to take in the life-giving food and water that is present in abundance.
They also dismiss a malevolence that sits on the periphery of their awareness hiding in the dense jungle beyond the fruits growing on every tree – fruits by the way that are their favourites and should not be present in any way, shape or form in a desert oasis – and the ice-cold stream flowing through the grove.
No matter how alluring, everything screams “stay away!” but mortal needs win out over existential ones and soon they are ensconced in this unexpected paradise, glad to be alive and reluctant to question things any further.
But, of course, they should have questioned things, gift horse mouths and all, because soon the close-knit band of friends are viciously turning on each other, beset by dreams of an entity that appears to them in a form to which each one can intimately relate – for Alif it is an imperious queen – and which offers them all kinds of rewards and sustenance, if only they will give up something for it.
If it all sounds like each of them are going to have to sell a soul or two to get what they want, then you’re bang on the evocatively unsettling tone that De Becerra conjures up as reality begins to fray and blur at the edges and the friends find themselves fighting an ever-mounting array of horrors, many of them manifested from within the darkest reaches of their souls.
They discover, much to their collective disquiet, that they may not be as virtuous as they thought they were.
Schisms and rivalries come bursting forth in a story that is like a slow descent into the blackest parts of the human psyche, where what is good and what is not, are almost impossible to untangle.
It is brilliant storytelling that never overstays its welcome at any point, building up, dream by peace of mind-shattering dream, an ominous atmosphere that everyone is aware is metaphorically and possibly literally eating them alive but which they are powerless to pull away from.
They may survive the initial threat to their lives but at what great cost?
“This lush spot where we found ourselves was surrounded by a tighter, less welcoming type of nature, where trees and bushes stuck so close, I could see only darkness behind them. I stared into one of the shadowy depths, and it was as if something stared back. Something eager, curious, and hungry. Our current location was made more idyllic by these rougher, less hospitable parts of the oasis. Who knew what was out there. Animals? Snakes? Driven by a shared understanding, we didn’t progress any farther, staying instead in this perfect spot. It was just missing butterflies and birdsong to complete the picture.” (P. 111)
Where Oasis succeeds is by keeping you guessing every step of the way.
Are the group really safe? Are their dreams make believe or windows into a nightmarish world where darkness hides behind the light? And are they dead or alive, escaped or trapped. safe or in peril?
You are never really sure, and magically so, in a novel that focuses on the raw humanity of the situation and how easily we are seduced by appearances and perceptions and not the truth of a situation, whether its internal or external in origin.
In a story that gleefully and brutally rips across genre boundaries, offering first a gripping tale of survival then a Twilight Zone-esque supernatural adventure then some nascent teen romance, we are witness to what can happen to people when who they thought they were crashes headlong into who they actually are and they are powerless to tell the difference or do anything about the consequences.
Oasis is a gripping tale, told with a deft hand for vivacious, engaging storytelling and replete with real, searing insights into the human condition serving up brilliantly-realised characters, a sense of chilling foreboding (with occasional moments of fun and romance that you just know portend a a descent into existential hell) that never lets relax for a moment even when it appears things might be getting better, offering a chillingly immersive reminder that whoever we might think we are, we are likely to be shocked to the core when the truth finally outs.