Ever join a friend or partner for a holiday dinner only to witness familial frustrations expressed in cryptic, barbed comments over the dinner table? You might not know exactly what’s going on, but it’s voyeuristically intriguing to see the tensions rising to the surface. Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You, the compulsively readable debut novel from Ariel Delgado Dixon, reads like that.
A gripping first-person psychological study of a queer young woman willing to sacrifice herself to become someone else’s ideal partner, the story reveals that the performance cannot hold. Her older girlfriend – successful, self-absorbed Rochelle – doesn’t ask too many questions as she appraises every aspect of their shared life into a spreadsheet. She’s looking for a human prize to validate her refinement and success, conditionally allowing the unnamed narrator into Rochelle’s glistening world.
The narrator is happy to oblige. “And who’s to say that this new life can’t be mine?” she asks herself. Any excuse for self-negation is welcome.
Her adolescence shifted between extremes – a free-range born from parental neglect and the ruthless control of Veld Center, a wilderness camp for troubled teenage girls. The traumatic nature of both experiences stays with her as she clings to someone unburdened and uninterested in who she once was – and might continue to be. The threat of being dragged back to that old place in her mind is always lurking.
Anchoring her to the past is her sister Fawn. This character, an antagonist of sorts, is as calculating and vindictive as Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2014) or Peter Gordon (masterfully acted by Kodi Smit-McPhee) in Jane Campion’s recent adaptation of The Power of the Dog (2021) by Thomas Savage. The narrator and Fawn crawled out of their respective chaotic upbringings and stints at Veld with a different conception of what’s needed to survive and to convince themselves and others that they are okay.
In childhood, Fawn deploys her charm to frame the narrator’s actions in the worst possible light. The narrator tries over and over again to expose Fawn, but the younger sibling continually foils her attempts. The stakes are even higher in adulthood. Their wary circling of each other, like lions gearing up to strike, propels the narrative forward.
It is difficult to pin down who Fawn is and why she does what she does. A girl at Veld theorizes – in classic psychological thriller fashion – that Fawn is a mere “volatile subset” of the narrator’s psyche. Her character’s motivations are crafted through the narrator’s eyes, leaving Fawn to seem like a mere projection of her own emotional precarity rather than a fully formed character at times.
The narrator sought to uncover her absent parents’ ghosts, as extensions of her own, to find clues about her volatility. Neither could be bothered to spend too much time with their two daughters, who they see as unwelcome distractions from their own aspirations. The mother was off trying to find someone to help her recover wealth and status, having previously turned her back on this family birthright. The father’s presence was felt through a four-song EP – a record of his time as a young man from a Caribbean island called Vieques trying to make it big in New York City. Their doomed-to-fail relationship cracked soon after the children arrived – and compounded the pressures.
The two girls grew up unsupervised and resenting each other, and it was only a matter of time until something went horribly wrong. When it did, Veld sold itself as a pricey, questionable (to say the least) solution for hapless parents looking for an antidote for their children’s misbehavior. “When you are desperate, the mere suggestion of hope is enough,” the narrator explains. At the camp, the narrator was taught a recipe to overcome the past: “Exhume your discretions, arrange them in order, pair them with repentances, and then be free.”
Counselors listened intently and compiled the data into a point system that determined the possibility of the girls recovering from their self-destructiveness. The hope of Veld was that the children would be well-adjusted – ready to go to college, start a fruitful career, and enter into a healthy romantic partnership – when the parents returned to pick them up from punishing deprivation.
After being labeled as “troubled”, past actions become the prism through which their decisions moving forward are gauged. “She made one memorable mistake,” the narrator says of another Veld dweller, “and this cast all minor mistakes to follow as lingering symptoms of the first.”
Mistakes abound in Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You. Over the course of the novel, a teenager impales himself scaling a fence, a house is set ablaze in a misplaced expression of love, and someone falls from a rooftop deck. The scale and frequency of the calamities our narrator encounters (and instigates) give off Euphoria-like soapy teen drama vibes in the best possible way. Dixon is unafraid of big, dramatic plot points.
Despite her attempts to escape them, the narrator is drawn to the places where her worst memories were formed, including her changing hometown. Deerie is a brilliant composite of the economically depressed former industrial hubs that become repurposed into yuppie wonderlands when developers see the profit potential from city dwellers who complain about rising apartment rents. “All that wreckage has since been cleared away and beautified, but somehow it is more disturbing,” the narrator says in a sentiment that spotlights Dixon’s astounding knack for talking about multiple things at the same time. “There are no indications of what was.”
Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You creates a larger picture one puzzle piece at a time, but without having the box to look to for guidance. It takes a while to see the whole, but Dixon’s skillful pacing, brilliant structure, and creation of menace through exacting description keep the reader gripped. Like a wire being stretched, the mounting tension has to snap and the ensuing whiplash flings around unpredictably.
“Every time I tried to calculate my way into love, every time I held on too tight,” the main character realizes, “I broke it.”