Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s third book and first novel plunges the reader headfirst into the action. On her morning run, Reagan Carsen discovers the dismembered body of a woman who looks startlingly like her. Reagan fights through several moments of indecision before fleeing the scene of the crime, for reasons that are revealed to readers in the first few chapters.
A luddite out of necessity, Reagan has constructed a cocoon for herself: no smartphone, no social media presence, nothing easily discoverable about her online. This furtive behaviour is mirrored in her offline life. Her apartment door is secured with three deadbolts, she parks a few blocks away from home, constantly alert to the “crunch of gravel, the creak of a car door”, and her only friend is bestselling true-crime writer Min-lee Chasse. Reagan’s been successfully hiding from someone for five years, but her discovery of a dead doppelganger makes her think she’s been found.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt shows how women’s lives can be infiltrated seamlessly and completely.Credit:Marnya Rothe
As more women are murdered around Sydney in identical fashion to the 1947 unsolved death of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles, infamously known as the Black Dahlia case, Reagan’s world starts unravelling. Her inbox is flooded with menacing emails. Every man in her life, from her banker to a navy-jacketed customer who frequents the plant store she owns and runs, is increasingly viewed through a suspicious lens.
A cascading series of inexplicable incidents coalesce to make her feel like she’s free-falling, as though “her reality was gaslighting her, certainties collapsing into question marks”. And despite everyone around her urging her to go to the police, Reagan has good reasons for not wanting to.
It’s no accident that the physical violence perpetrated upon the women unfolds in tandem with the digital and image-based sexual violence that Reagan experiences. All of them stem from the manosphere. The denouement to one of the crimes is more satisfying than the other, but what becomes evident is they’re both connected.
Dark Mode by Ashley Kalagian Blunt.
Kalagian Blunt has spun a terrifying psychological thriller about the cost of being a woman when misogynists have increasingly sophisticated technology at their fingertips and the unparalleled ability to connect with like-minded people in unlawful corners of the dark web. She’s fluent in the language of incels: doxxing, deepfakes and swatting are routinely employed to punish and destroy women, dehumanising terms such as “foid” are used to describe them, and pop-culture terms such as “red pill” have been co-opted to describe men awakening to the so-called reality of their subjugation at the hands of women.
In one of the more confronting sections of the book, readers are privy to missives written in a dark web forum describing one man’s systematic mission to prey on “targets”, make them fall in love with him, and destroy them psychologically through a sophisticated campaign of online abuse and harassment. That the ensuing feelings in the women are that of internalised shame and a desire to retreat from online life is the intended effect.
So effective is the portrayal of how women’s lives can be infiltrated so seamlessly and completely in Dark Mode that traditional forms of stalking seem almost quaint in comparison. Though what’s accentuated in the book’s blurb is “the price we pay for surrendering our privacy one click at a time”, what happens to Reagan happens despite her living an incredibly offline life.
In parts, the book holds a mirror to society’s obsession with true crime. Reagan marvels at how her friend Min “could hold so much violence in her head”. Sales of dahlias skyrocket at Reagan’s plant shop as the Sydney Dahlia cases dominate headlines, a craze Reagan observes as “morbid”.
The inner west of Sydney, “a sprawling patchwork city, with endless nooks to burrow into”, and the oppressive heat of summer are sketched with exquisite detail. The book is signposted by dates between mid-January and mid-March. Sometimes the days unfold consecutively, other times we’re catapulted into the near future as the narrative skips forward by a couple of days. The effect is we see how quickly the violence in Dark Mode escalates.
Tapping into the same themes of surveillance and hyper-vigilance, Dark Mode shares similarities with J.P. Pomare’s The Last Guests. Where it differs is in scale; by the end, it becomes clear there aren’t just one or two perpetrators of violence – there’s an army.
Dark Mode by Ashley Kalagian Blunt is published by Ultimo Press, $34.99.
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