Lacey May is a 14 year old girl living with her alcoholic mother in the sweltering heat of Peaches, a town in California. Once a lush raisin capital and now a drought-stricken desert, this town is replete with people who are plagued by poverty and thirst. Hordes of its residents have turned to religious cult leader Pastor Vern for salvation. Lacey May’s dotty grandmother Cherry became his ardent follower after apparently witnessing him summoning rain from the sky. Now the believers of Peaches are looking to Vern, who considers himself Christ reincarnated, to pull off another miracle and ravish their arid land with much-needed rain.
Chelsea Bieker does a stellar job of grounding the pre-apocalyptic premise of this story in the realistic, suburban setting of California’s Central Valley. There has been a recent influx of feminist coming-of-age meets cult novels. The Girls, Gather The Daughters, and The Incendiaries are the latest examples of such books that highlight how fanatic leaders justify crimes against humanity and, specifically, women, under the garb of religious, moral, or philosophical gains. Godshot is a worthy addition to this canon. In one scene, Lacey spots global warming posters and asks her mother what they mean. After receiving an unsatisfactory reply, she knows she will never bring it up again because it has been drilled into her that “curiosity was the first rung on the ladder down to hell.”
Lacey May’s mother is a former pageant queen who used to be Vern’s devotee but eventually fell out of favor with him ever since she started seeing through his sham. Failure to carry out a covert assignment that Vern delegates to all his disciples results in her being eventually banished from town on Vern’s order. Left motherless, Lacey is compelled to move in with her grandmother Cherry. Cherry is a striking character and also one of the most well-written ones. She is a crazed zealot who lives her life completely out of touch with reality.
Lacey’s mother is depicted as a lost woman and a reluctant mom, who has a lot of unresolved issues of her own. Raised as the town’s beauty, she has learned to survive on her looks alone and when that fails, she seeks solace in faith and alcohol. One of her friends describes her to Lacey with discernment: “Your mother’s got that emptiness inside her and she’s gonna fill it with something. Drink, church, men. Always switching seats on the Titanic.”
The story starts on a slow note and for the first 50 pages, it is not quite clear where it is headed. The narrative really comes into its own when the characters and their motives become more precise. Godshot features one of the most authentic and tenderly written portrayals of the bond between a mother and daughter. Lacey’s mother is her only anchor in the deranged environment she finds herself in. When she leaves and does not contact Lacey, it only fuels Lacey’s love for her rather than diminishing it. Lacey intuitively senses that her mother’s leaving was an act of desperation and so begins her quest for her. The rest of the book follows Lacey on her search, where she meets a host of peculiar characters.
Bieker has a knack for coruscatingly describing humans at their most vulnerable. The passages that linger the most in memory are the ones in which readers’ can feel Lacey’s ambivalent feeling towards her perpetually inebriated mother. “But while I wanted my hatred of her to cover me, to harden my skin to scales and become me, the opposite happened. I only loved her more,” Bieker writes. Eventually Lacey realizes how mothering is something instinctive which cannot be taught.
The novel also depicts how fanatical men develop and sustain god complexes as well as the patriarchal systems in place that allow them to brazenly commit vile acts against women. Throughout the story, women are depicted as being emotionally, financially or spiritually dependent on men who exploit them for their own gains. We also see how Lacey comes to the realization that you can’t change people and have to make your peace with it while doing right by yourself.
This multilayered debut is filled with moments that are starkly grim and intensely moving. Bieker proves her mettle as a writer in how she expresses, through her characters, the whole gamut of emotions from selfless love to bottomless grief. Ultimately, this story illustrates the resilience and strength required to be a woman in an unforgiving man’s world.
By Chelsea Bieker
Published March 31, 2020
A Karachi-based critic, bylines in Book Riot, Vol1Brooklyn, Brooklyn Mag, The Spectator, Irish Times and elsewhere. Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org