What happens when the California drought reaches catastrophic proportions? Dry by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman takes you on a gripping journey.
Dry caught my eye because I naively thought that maybe it would be just another fun dystopian novel. But I had greatly underestimated it. From the very beginning, Dry conveys that you’re in the hands of skilled writers, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the story… and find yourself in a world that is terrifyingly realer than you expected.
In a future that is not very distant at all, California is suddenly thrown into chaos when the drought escalates into the Tap-Out: suddenly, no one has water. The taps don’t work, the wells are dry, and within the space of a few days the state becomes a lawless land.
When 16-year-old Alyssa and her 10-year-old brother Garrett find themselves alone and without water, they have to make unlikely alliances to survive — and figure out how much humanity one can have when civilization is suddenly overcome with the most animalistic of needs: thirst.
The depth of research that has gone into Dry does not go unnoticed. From the very beginning, Alyssa and her family position you firmly in California, which makes it all the more terrifying when all that is suddenly pulled out from under them. Following various points of view throughout the story, with occasional snapshots of peripheral characters whose experiences serve to illustrate the catastrophe’s deadly effects of society and morality, the book feels so authentic that at times I had to force myself to stop reading to look at my surroundings and find comfort in the fact that I still have water.
The variety of characters in Dry also serves to make it feel very realistic, because it’s strikingly objective. Particularly Kelton, Alyssa’s first ally on their journey, stands out as a possibly controversial character whose nature as a disaster “prepper,” love of weapons and slightly creepy tendencies — but the book feels very factual in its dealing with these concepts, even when characters bring up their own opinions about it.
Are preppers, represented in this story by characters who do some disturbing things, ultimately deranged? Or is this story proving the point that they were right all along? (And aren’t most selfish and violent characters in the story “ordinary people,” anyway?) In the end, Dry doesn’t seek to answer any of these questions — just to show you, and let you draw your own conclusions.
Dry manages to elevate the disaster genre to perfection in a way nothing else I’ve read (or watched) ever has. It feels real. It never quite lets you catch your breath. And the difficult questions that the plot is dealing with are all the more effective because they are never explicitly asked — after all, who has time to get philosophical when they’re dying of thirst? But the tension of all that goes unsaid is what finally drives the point home more powerfully than any words could have.
And although the story is inherently thrilling and terrifying and sometimes disturbing, you never want to stop reading. I think it’s because of the complex, intriguing characters the Shustermans have leading the story. Beyond their fight to find water, the fight you really care about is their fight to preserve their sense of morality after everything they go through.
The only thing in this very skillfully-written book that slightly jarred me was the rather idealistic twist it eventually takes. But I suppose the authors didn’t want to leave us completely depressed by destroying everything we love, which is understandable — although a part of me complains that, in the light of the tragedies that happen earlier in the book, a happy(ish?) ending seems far from realistic.
But Dry isn’t here to make you suffer; it’s here to make you think. And plenty of the scenes I read in this book will stick with me for a long time because of how fascinating and powerful they are.
Dry is an example of what all disaster stories should be: not obsessed with superhuman heroism, or thrusting tragedy into your face left and right, but interested in exploring the nature of humanity when it’s at its worst, and showing you exactly what that looks like.
Earlier this year, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights to adapt Dry to screen, and I couldn’t be more excited.