Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Ashley Kalagian Blunt
March 2023, Paperback, 400 Pages, ISBN: 9781761151255
Dark Mode is a seriously scary book. It’s also incredibly engaging. I skipped an enticing social engagement because I was halfway through the book (read the first half on a one hour flight) and I just had to finish it. Though this is Blunt’s first full-length thriller, it’s expertly crafted with all the right hooks and twists to keep you engaged and wanting to know what happens until the very end. The fast pace and the intensity of the situation that protagonist Reagan Carson finds herself in from page one doesn’t diminish or undermine the deep exploration of misogyny – both at an individual level and a structural one – that underpins the book, or the way it conveys a growing anxiety that is driven by more than the plot.
The book draws on the gruesome 1947 murder of 22 year old Elizabeth Short, referred to as the “Black Dahlia” by the press. The unsolved mystery has inspired several books and films, but Blunt has created a very modern story that incorporates technology, particularly the dangerous alt-right Incel driven “intellectual dark web” to create a work that is both chillingly close and that engages with a demographic most of us (women at least) are not aware of.
Reagan makes for a compelling protagonist, and her fear is palpable from the start, extending beyond her gristly discovery of a murder victim who looks just like her, into an anxiety that is visceral:
She relocked the three deadbolts to her apartment, thunk, thunk, thunk. The building had no elevator or aircon, and her unit featured one tiny bedroom with stained brown carpet. In summer the apartment trapped the heat, and she spent nights naked on top of her sheet. But her place was on the second floor, the windows shielded by lemon myrtle trees, and importantly, the front door was solid wood. (84)
One of the things that Blunt does so well is to show the way that the belittlement of women works along a pyramid where normalised small scale harassment works its way up to the kinds of systematic internalised denigration of women that can lead to collective and deadly aggressions. To say more would be a spoiler, but the book handles this creeping evil with subtlety, never losing sight of Reagan’s own development or the readers’ innate drive to find out whodunnit.
We get a strong sense of Reagan’s affinity with plants from the start of the book when she imagines feeling the high frequency distressed screams of unwatered gerbera’s and coleus plants, and soon learn that she runs a failing plant business called The “Voodoo Lily”. The shop is a bit magical (and yet oddly familiar – I feel like I know the place) and the reader is quickly drawn into Reagan’s love of plants:
Late afternoons un slanted through her front display window, reflecting off the polished concrete floor. The black wall paint and the hanging philodendron vines, woven through up cycled wooden ladders secured to the ceiling, gave the shop a jungle vibe. A side door led to a small greenhouse. There were the usuals, nasturtiums and marigolds, daisies, sweet peals and zinnias; a rainbow of bright summer blossoms filling the shop’s cascading shelves. But she prided herself on the unusual, her cobra lilies, carnivorous trumpet pitchers, black bat flowers, doll’s eyes, and her rare orchids. (13)
Reagan is also unusual in that she is completely offline. She doesn’t have a smartphone, keeps off of the internet, and avoids email and social media. She’s also afraid of the police, which is why she doesn’t phone them, even after her gruesome discovery. The world Reagan lives in is one where trust is already eroded, and where the institutions meant to protect her have already failed, so it’s no wonder that fear is pervasive and internalised. In the book, Blunt does an excellent job of showing the extent of Reagan’s situation and the many touchpoint of harassment, objectification and abuse that she endures, including from her own mother. The Sydney Dahlia murder is sensationalised and commodified, and the hacked conversations we later get to read are merely at the extrapolated end point of a collaboration between wide-ranging structures of support that encompass many of the institutions in Dark Web.
Reagan’s arc is a powerful one as she transitions through the book from terror to anger, as evidenced by the interview she gives for Channel 6 at one point in which she’s asked what she would have done differently, and she responds by objecting to the question itself as being part of the overall structures of misogyny which harm everyone. Blunt’s skill with words is evident throughout the book, which moves so quickly it takes an effort to slow down and enjoy the beauty of Blunt’s prose as casts a loving glance over the rose-gold Sydney skyline and finger wharves or depicts a variety of interesting plants. Dark Mode is one of those books that gets under your skin like a stinging cactus, causing you to see things just a bit differently.