Heiress Eugenie Lund is missing. This we know from the newspaper article that opens Dodge and Burn, reporting that a manuscript, ostensibly Eugenie's work, has been found in a Spanish cave. The ensuing extract reveals the fate of Eugenie and her sister Camille: after their mother's death in a freak accident (involving killer bees), they were adopted/kidnapped by the sadistic Dr Vargas, who 'educated' them – in his own arcane manner – and experimented on them. But the meat of the story takes place some years after the sisters' escape from Vargas, with Eugenie recently married to a Frenchman named Benoît who has preternatural fighting skills.
The tone for Eugenie's quest to be reunited with Camille is set when she pauses, briefly, to sum up her (their?) predicament thus: 'Who would have guessed that all of this tragedy would befall us, that we would lose one another and I would journey so far and wide and come to this spot, newly married, running from casino mafia and the law?' At first, I found this bad and stagy, but I later came to see this voice as part of the book's charm. Eugenie and Benoît's flight becomes an acid-soaked misadventure across several states, with competing aims: on the one hand, to lie low; on the other, to find Camille and ultimately kill Vargas. Eugenie shifts in and out of consciousness and, accordingly, in and out of different realities, seeing visions and finding clues. She has spiritual and psychic connections with Camille and believes these can help them reunite, but when she's constantly tripping, can anything she says be trusted?
The story bursts with colour and energy. Characters are geniuses or outrageous eccentrics, all of them larger than life. Every page – every sentence, even – fizzes with vivid descriptions, unusual word choices, rapid-fire exposition and movie-worthy dialogue. The plot takes 'far-fetched' to new heights and the narrative barely pauses for breath in 240 pages. If Dodge and Burn was food, it would be one of those rainbow piñata cakes, but with pills and tabs of acid in the middle instead of sweets.
It's exciting and great fun, but it can also be absolutely exhausting. It's best read in quick bursts. At points, Madsen's writing feels like it's been over-revised into artificial stiffness and needs to be a little looser; at others like it could do with more editing (I can't believe someone with Eugenie's intellect would get 'lay' and 'lie' mixed up, and I cringed hard every time I encountered 'off of', probably my least favourite pairing of words in the English language). And of course there's Eugenie and Benoît. Picture Sailor and Lula from Wild at Heart, but with higher IQs; they're constantly pawing at each other and using annoying pet names; I have to admit I would've liked the book better without all their mutual simpering.
So it's not perfect. But it is delightfully different, and it's impossible not to get caught up in its vibrancy and enthusiasm. Though Dodge and Burn has flaws, it's difficult to dwell on any one of them for long, as another outlandish twist is sure to come along and sweep you up in its madness. It also ends on something of a cliffhanger, with one potential explanation for Eugenie's narrative dismissed before it can be properly explored. Some may find this terribly frustrating, but I thought it was a clever move that suited the flighty nature of the story and its narrator.
This is the first book from independent publisher Dodo Ink, and its sparky originality bodes well for what's next.
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