The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley ruthlessly interrogates what it means to be successful as a Black woman, a Millennial, and a liberal living in an urban center. Protagonist Aretha has it all—a so-called “good job” at a corporate law firm, a best friend, Nia, who is a well-off private practice therapist, and an active dating life, but she still craves more. She wants to make partner at her law firm, not because it’s what she really wants, but because it’s what she thinks it’s what she’s supposed to want, and she wants to meet the perfect guy, because deep down, she’s lonely. When she meets Aaron, roaster for Tactical Coffee, on a dating app, everything seems like it’s written in the stars. But is it?
Aaron is a survivalist—essentially a doomsday prepper, and his roommates Brittany and James have built a bunker in their backyard. Aretha tries to ignore the fact that they have guns in their house, and when she moves in with them, small things about Aaron and his roommates bother her. They only eat soy protein. They do martial arts in the backyard. Brittany has a small arsenal of military-issue guns in her closet. Soon, Aretha is alienated from her friends, drawn further and further into this world of the survivalists, and she must decide how much of herself she is willing to compromise, and what her values truly are.
The Survivalists is a smart, sharp novel, which uses widely held beliefs about liberalism and woke culture to juxtapose Aretha’s slow glide into doomsday prepping. Much of the novel’s genius is subtlety—as readers, we see the red flags, but Aretha performs a series of mental gymnastics to avoid the fact that she is becoming more like these people, and less rational. Her essential loneliness is exploited, and her desire for connection turns into a desperate bid for friendship towards people who are, at their core, dangerous. The Survivalists is interesting in that it does not romanticize or explain Brittany or James’ backgrounds or how they got to be this way—they are simply powered by an unknown fear that comes from within, and we are not meant to sympathize with them. Aaron, on the other hand, is somewhat sympathetic at the beginning; he tells a story about being caught in a hurricane, but by the end of the novel, he is simply another bad boyfriend, lying, cheating, and ultimately a disappointment.
In one of the most shocking twists of the novel, Aretha loses her corporate law job over a missed day of work because of a severe allergy attack, which puts her in the hospital. In this way, the novel is quite darkly ironic. This, again, brings into question issues of success and what it means, or takes, to be truly successful. Aretha is a fiercely competitive person, and almost relies on the fast-paced world of corporate law. When it is taken away from her, she unravels, falling into a dark underworld of gun-selling for the adrenaline rush.
The Survivalists is really a novel about the depths of loneliness, and where it can take you. Although ostensibly about success (and it does have those notes), The Survivalists tells us that it is lonely in the so-called “real” world, and a person may have to go to dark places to look for friendship. In the end, however, Aretha reaches back out to her original best friend, Nia, who had warned her about Aaron and his friends from the beginning. Sometimes, you get it right the first time, the novel suggests. Stick to your friends. They’ll always have your back.
Readers of Luster by Raven Leilani or The Sellout by Paul Beatty will perhaps recognize this quick, likable voice of a Millenial Black protagonist who is critical of the status quo. This book is certainly in that tradition, but adds a sense of apocalyptic suspense to the genre which readers will appreciate.
The Survivalists stirs up all the questions that young people have when entering their thirties—should I climb the corporate ladder? Should I get a long-term partner? Should I keep my college friends? However, the dark turn it takes when exploring these questions is unexpected and thrilling, well-written and often quite funny. Aretha will be a protagonist who appeals to many young readers, and The Survivalists is definitely a debut to remember. Cauley has written a book which will act as a warning signal for any young person wondering about soy protein bars, gun-ownership, or doomsday prepping in the future, and beyond.
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Publication Date:January 10, 2023
Reviewed by Joanna Acevedo