"Kevin Smith’s Clerks - but with 90% of the Gen-X cynicism replaced with honest emotion"
by Jess Conwell
It’s fun to dream. Growing up transgender in a small, conservative town, under the heel of an abusive father, Abra Collins had always dreamed of a different life. A life where she could be herself, surrounded by those she loved. With no small effort, Abra, now in her late twenties, has built that life. She and her three dearest friends run Cluster, a combination coffee shop, music venue, and vintage toy store. It’s a safe, secure, and joyful place where four misfits can live life as they desire. It’s everything Abra ever dreamed.
But there’s a problem with dreams: Eventually, you have to wake up.
When two of her friends announce they are leaving town, they inadvertently expose the cracks in her seemingly stable life. Long-buried feelings begin to crawl their way to the surface, old wounds reopen, and life-long relationships fracture. Suddenly finding herself trying to navigate a world she no longer recognizes, with no one to help her but her slightly-unhinged ex, Abra must figure out what to take with her, what to leave behind, and most of all, who she has become.
Seeped in geek culture and brimming with heartbreak and wry humor in equal measure, Jessica Conwell’s debut novel explores identity, love, friendship, and family in all their beautiful, messy forms.
Jessica Conwell’s novel Cluster is an altogether interesting beast. I wasn’t 100% sure what I was expecting this book to be before I cracked it open. But whatever my expectations were, Cluster blew it out of the water.
Cluster is a beautifully, dynamically written tale of friendship, trauma, and the debatable idea of ‘growing up’ – a sort of late-blooming coming of age novel. The opening pages introduce us to a cast of characters who at first feel like exaggerated caricatures who gel together with their own larger than life complementary idiosyncrasies and friendgroup culture. But as it progresses, we get to understand the deeper relationships and trauma that underline all of it – especially the main character Abra Collins, who has the additional burden of being transgender with a father who is openly hostile to the concept.
I won’t go into any details of the events of the book here, since I think part of the fun is to organically discover how the characters grow and develop throughout the story, and it is hard to do justice to it in any summary. It is the execution where the book shines.
Now while relationship dramas aren’t my typical read, Cluster won me over in the opening pages through its sheer force of personality, which persists and melds seamlessly with the highs and lows of the events its characters are forced to endure. This comes from the shades of pop culture that are integrated into the DNA of the book. The best way to describe the style and narrative of the book is Kevin Smith’s Clerks – but with 90% of the Gen-X cynicism replaced with honest emotion.
Conwell’s writing is phenomenal, and is a perfect blend of pop and pseudo memoir that really keeps you reading. There is one chapter in particular – describing a murder – that I think is just pure art. Even then, it wears its emotion on its sleeve and doesn’t shy away from exploring the effects of trauma on its main character and her relationships with her friends. Aside from her family struggles, which are considerable, Abra also must deal with her friend group growing apart and moving on in their lives – something which many of us elder millennials can identify with.
Ultimately, Cluster is a tragicomic slice of life that will draw you in with its delightful personality and refuse to let you go until its finished moving you with its trauma and heart. Conwell’s novel is a triumph and is more than worth a read, even if these kinds of stories are not your usual fare.
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I bought this for my personal collection.
G.M. Nair is a crazy person who should never be taken seriously. Despite possessing both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering and a job as an Aviation and Aerospace Consultant, he writes comedy for the stage and screen, and maintains the blog MakeMomMarvel.Com. Now he is making the leap into the highly un-lucrative field of independent book publishing.
G.M. Nair lives in New York City and in a constant state of delusion.