Natashia Deón’s The Perishing is a dark, gritty and slow-burning mystery involving an immortal protagonist.
In Depression-era Los Angeles, a Black girl wakes up naked and alone in a downtown alleyway. She doesn’t know who she is, not even her name. Her body and mind are bruised but not broken, her origins a mystery. She’s placed with a Black foster family, and her foster mother suggests the name Louise, which gets shortened to Lou.
Lou may not remember her previous life, but her intelligence and talent are evident. She goes to high school and becomes a trailblazing journalist at the Los Angeles Times. But her feelings are divided; she vaguely thinks there might be a birth family out there for her, and a face continually haunts her, showing up in her sketches and dreams.
This is just one part of a story that hops between various time periods, including the future. As an immortal being, the woman known as Lou has lived many lives and has seen many things. Her storytelling is peppered with social observations and grim philosophical pronouncements about gender, race and the inhumanity of humankind. “We fight among ourselves in this village of earth,” she says, “wars to maintain elitism and its bounty, wars we should have never been fighting, where both winners and losers are traumatized and not just in war. But in love.”
The 1930s mystery of Lou’s family is a throughline in each era, as are recurrent themes of death and despair. As a new reporter, Lou’s beat is to report on the “tragic deaths of colored people,” and death touches her on a more personal level as well. In 2102, now named Sarah Shipley, the protagonist finds herself on trial. Acting as her own attorney, she pleads not guilty. “He got what he deserved,” she says. “I can defend all my lives. . . . And anyway, no woman kills unless in self-defense. If not in defense of a current wrong, for all the wrongs that came before without justice.”
Deón’s writing is beautiful, with a rat-a-tat quality, like brutal poetry mixed with fierce prose. The noirish plot is sometimes hard to penetrate, but fans of challenging and ambitious speculative fiction should be pleased.