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Sand by Hugh Howey

Sand by Hugh Howey: half a face takes up the whole cover behind the title and author nameA review by Nalini Haynes

Palmer and his friend Hap have joined a band of scavengers seeking treasure from the ruins of a lost world, our world whose legacy is a ragged remnant of humanity and sand-covered ruins. With special equipment these scavengers dive through sand like ocean divers scavenge wrecks now.

Palmer trusts Hap with his life. He trusts Hap enough to join a band of rough and ready strangers, venturing to an unknown destination in their search for loot.

Palmer left behind two younger brothers, Connor and Rob, both of whom are at school. Conner and Rob are about to take their annual pilgrimage in memory of their father who abandoned them 10 years ago, when Rob was still in his mother’s belly and Connor was only 6.

Connor plans to follow in his father’s footsteps, abandoning his brother on the night of their camping trip to walk across No Man’s Land in search of a better life and his father.

Palmer and Conner have an older sister, Vic, who is renowned for her extraordinary diving abilities. Vic retrieves treasure from deep under the sand, only to be accosted by a violent young man, Marco. Marco is Vic’s volatile lover: sometimes tender, more often violent even in times of intimacy, Vic ‘manages’ Marco, accepting his vagaries because she’s never known better.

Bechdel Test and trigger warnings

Although I’m not positive that Sand would pass a literal Bechdel Test if it was a movie – is there enough actual talking between women? – the relationships between Vic, her mother and Violet are sufficiently complex and detailed to demonstrate significant attention to women’s relationships. I call this an excellent ‘pass’. (Note: it’s been a hot minute since I read the book and, since then, I learnt that the Bechdel Test requires women to talk without a man present as well as to not talk about a man). However, this is a violent world. Vic’s first sexual encounter was rape and her current relationship is violent and abusive.

Sex work

Vic’s mum is a sex worker, a role she took on to provide for her children while resenting it; a role that drove her children away from her. At first this felt like a bit of a cliché but by the end of Sand, the mum’s sex work was not only fully justified in terms of income for survival but also in exploration of family dynamics; sex work enhanced the plot and family relationships.

Told in the close third person point of view, usually sitting on the shoulder of one of Palmer’s family, sometimes chapters – scenes – overlap. Howey avoids repetition by maintaining a strong point of view and voice for each character. Although the overlapping scenes told from different perspectives was effective, it jarred the first time or two it happened. Ultimately this technique worked because the different perspectives interlaced storylines in a fast-moving plot.

The verdict

Sand renders familial relationships in a post-apocalyptic world. A family torn asunder is vulnerable to unexpected predators. Sand is heavily influenced by Hugh Howey’s time working on yachts and diving as well as by Frank Herbert’s Dune (‘the sand will flow’) not to mention Star Wars (‘the sand will not sit still for this’). Sand can be read as a stand-alone story in Howey’s detailed post-apocalyptic world. Highly recommended.

Random House Australia provided my electronic review copy of Sand but they don’t seem to be selling electronic copies. Hugh Howey’s website offers a DRM-FREE version of Sand although it’s not clear what format Sand is in.

I interviewed Hugh Howey last year.

ISBN: 9781780893181
Publisher: Century (Random House)
Extent: 384 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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