“Beach Bodies” is an upcoming book by Nick Kowalski. The story chronicles a home invasion with some unexpected twists which keep the narrative alive right when it starts to slow. Though a quick read, its brevity tends to skip passed moments that would’ve been pleasantly illuminating. The result is a rickety thrill ride that’s fun but feels more like a start than a story.
The central plot revolves around Julia, a young woman hired to housesit the doomsday bunker of a billionaire. Despite being decked out in the latest technology and lavish finery, there’s no denying the brutalist architecture defining this concrete cave. It feels more like a tomb than a home, and a sense of paranoia abounds given the watchful eye of security cameras constantly monitoring the place. Worse, the location for this luxury apocalypse bunker is a rocky island devoid of life. Complicating matters is the presence of Julia’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Alec. An aspiring entrepreneur, whose every effort seems fruitless, he’s currently focused on cryptocurrency’s get-rich-quick potential.
Things take a turn when three people appear out of nowhere on the isolated island. At the risk of spoilers, an act of kindness propels matters into a home invasion. Soon, Julia and Alec must struggle to survive as the nature of their reality unravels. What they have presumed to be the truth about their situation is eventually revealed to be anything but. Yet, whatever maddening knowledge afflicts them, there is still the immediate danger of the home invaders.
Increasingly unreal events steer the story from the ordinary into realms of the unreal. When the horror of a home invasion lulls, the book veers sharply into sci-fi territory. Some readers will enjoy how these elements arrive without much if any, warning. Others may view them as cheap electric shocks intended to rouse a reader losing interest. Instead of red herrings which misdirect an audience into thinking they know what comes next, Beach Bodies is occasionally the literary equivalent of being led running into a brick wall. That’s to say, the twists don’t always feel earned, but they will compel some to keep reading.
It isn’t a weakness that cripples the book. There’s a case to be made these jack-in-the-box plot points, popping up without warning, are thrilling surprises. The real problem is that many involve actions that have little characterization or explanation to justify them. It seems like an attempt to leave readers confused by what’s happening between Julia and Alec. The goal is to prompt an audience into continuing in hopes of revelations at the end. What trips up the story, though, is the narrative leaving characters somewhat undefined making it harder to care about them.
The only two given any real definition are Alec and Julia. However, Beach Bodies never satisfyingly explores what makes their relationship tick. Make no mistake, this is a toxic romance that Kowalski makes crystal clear in excellent examples of show, don’t tell. Unfortunately, more could’ve been shown. For instance, why exactly Julia is compelled to stay with someone she views as toxic? There is one scene in the book that offers some kind of why, but it doesn’t feel like enough to explain the heartstrings wrapped around their throats. This matters because their relationship is a focal point of the plot as well as the story’s conclusion.
Furthermore, elements of personality are hinted at which leads to nothing. The book says that being on the wrong side of Julia’s temper is dangerous, yet never shows the proof, nor does this ever matter over the course of events. Despite being pushed to her limit, Julia doesn’t truly become the danger the story hints she could be.
Not to play editor, but some of this likely would’ve worked better in the first person. Then the missing pieces would make sense given a narrator’s inherently limited knowledge, or perhaps a desire not to share. At the same time, any misleading character traits could be considered someone’s self-deception. Rather than Julia is dangerous when her temper erupts, Julia believes she is dangerous. Then when events don’t fit the description, it makes tragic sense.
As it stands, Beach Bodies tends to run perpendicular to itself, tripping over the few expectations set up. The book presents a strong woman who is never strong. Home invaders who do little except occupy the house, and when their invasion becomes as unpleasant as uninvited guests — twist time — zombie rapist.
(Content warning: sexual assault)
That latter element really took me out of the book. Spoiler warning: a character is dead until they’re not. Their resurrection without explanation, the living dead decides to “skull f*ck” someone for no apparent reason. Although the scene stops just shy of becoming splatterpunk in its grotesque details, the moment exists purely for shock and gore. Worse, there’s an aside wherein Julia remembers a friend who used to let her romantic partner have sex with her vacant eye socket. The whole scene reads like a bunch of juvenile edgelords trying to one-up one another rather than something necessary. Yes, the assault creates a distraction characters use to their advantage, but anything else could’ve done just as well.
Fortunately, the end of Beach Bodies wraps up the story. Many loose threads or what may seem like plot holes are either tied up or filled in. The downside is that characters simply state explanations during a race to a conclusion. Some of these revelations inspire more questions than answers, although I have no doubt some readers will find these more tantalizing than frustrating.
“Beach Bodies” is the literary equivalent of a sci-fi horror flick sent straight to VHS. A brisk read that can be consumed in a day, Kowalski repeatedly twists and turns to keep a reader off balance. Though the bolts on this rollercoaster could use some tightening, there’s enough for an audience to enjoy. Arriving on October 31, Beach Bodies may not be in time for beach blanket reading, but any autumnal evening will get a little sinister spice perusing this book.