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Girlhood’s Repression in “Brutes”

Girlhood’s Repression in “Brutes”

  • Our review of Dizz Tate's debut novel, "Brutes."

Dizz Tate’s Brutes is a dark coming-of-age story that follows a gang of ruthless 13-year-old girls as their latest obsession, an older girl named Sammy, disappears from their Florida town of Falls Landing. Having tracked her every move and watched her sneak out to meet with a boy by the lake, the girls witness their community scramble for answers, while something much more sinister lurks in its wake. Although Sammy’s disappearance is the inciting incident and creates suspense, Brutes is heavily character-driven, focusing on the girls’ experiences and their emotional repression surrounding mothers, friends, and their depressed, attention-hungry town. Dizz Tate’s voice in her debut novel is voyeuristic, unsettling, and mesmerizing.

My initial interest in the novel was its description as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project” with surreal elements, focusing on girlhood. The resemblance is noticeable in aesthetics and narration, but Brutes deviates from both stylistically, with Tate adding her own dark twists on the social consciousness of girls coming of age. In many scenes, there’s a philosophy for the vicious mind games played by middle school girls and the below-the-belt fights with their moms that speaks to becoming the perpetrator so as not to be seen as the victim. In games of chicken, the gang chooses one girl to target, ignoring or bullying her, and sees how long she will go before crying. The reaction always sparks annoyance and rage from the girls, who continue icing out the target. The role rotates throughout the group like a hazing ritual, bonding them as they exploit each other’s desperation to be accepted. Once they decide when the targeted girl has had enough, they make up and experience collective comfort from soothing the girl who only wanted to be let back into the group. Cutting and, sadly, realistic instances such as these make Brutes so outspoken and captivating. Brutes explores why some kids choose callousness over vulnerability and what suffering results both from their own decisions and events out of their control.

The novel is told in first-person plural, so that the gang of girls is an odd, inseparable narrator, acting and seeing as one. Some chapters shift to first-person singular, taking us into the minds of individual characters when they are adults. There is a voyeuristic quality to the points of view shifting and morphing into one character while they are young. The gang is eerily aware of eyes on them—or, at the very least, hoping someone will watch them the way they watch the older girls. There are moments when other characters acknowledge the gang’s presence without addressing them—such as their gossiping mothers or the older kids—and instead of being mortified, they silently celebrate being noticed. Tate’s striking depiction of growing up in Florida is so palpable that, as a Midwesterner, it was easy to be immersed in the beautiful and oftentimes depressing setting. Alongside the characters, we can understand how they loathe yet begrudgingly admire their hometown.

Small interactions and mannerisms make Brutes realistic and sometimes comedic. Being so vivid and candid, it brought to mind universal experiences of overhearing conversations between strangers and having to stifle a reaction to what you hear (the word I’m doing gymnastics around here is “eavesdropping”). Most notably in the novel, the reader overhears conversations between gossiping mothers. Like talking heads, they gather in groups to smoke, drink, and rattle off their rants, quipping to each other. We are exposed to these conversations through the perspective of the girls, who listen from a not-so-far distance. Whether the older women are searching for Sammy or lounging by the pool, the overheard conversations are sharp and entertaining, but they also make us experience what the girls have absorbed from their first-ever role models: their mothers. As their attention shifts to girls not much older than themselves, we are reminded of how the young teens once idolized their mothers, and how these mothers were their first critics—purposely or not. The 13-year-olds find ways to exploit their mothers’ vulnerabilities, which become more obvious as they watch them, and their viciousness and combative behavior show how their relationships have come to be over time. One of the many coming-of-age themes in Brutes examines strained mother-daughter relationships, where the beginnings of their animosity and resentment cannot be led back to one particular instance, but a collection of them that have built up over time. 

The last quarter of the novel is its unraveling point, coming to some odd conclusions that leave some questions open to interpretation. All things considered, I found myself invested in the relatable, intimate moments that molded the girls, their grappling with a fear of vulnerability and emotional warfare, and especially how Tate refuses to completely vilify these realistic characters. The consistent theme of emotional repression makes us wonder why collective suffering bonds people—and how it holds us all back.

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Brutes dissects morally gray female characters’ actions and thought processes through sympathetic and apathetic lenses alike. It bares teeth and is worth reading because of its brutal, yet distinctly vulnerable depiction of an emotionally violent girlhood. Tate drills into the heart of painstaking feelings of mistrust and loneliness that sprout roots in childhood and fester in adulthood. Stunning and realistic, Brutes speaks to how we have been taught to stifle emotions out of fear and how those fears have been weaponized against us, resulting in anger acting as the secondary emotion that masks all others.

By Dizz Tate
Published February 7, 2023

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