Warren, an elite New England University, is home to one of the most exclusive MFA programs in the country. It’s on this program that our protagonist Samantha is studying, along with a clique in her cohort who name themselves the ‘bunnies.’ (Bunnies, finding themselves a home at ‘Warren’ – I see what she did there). Samantha is simultaneously repulsed and secretly intrigued by the behaviour of this girl gang – ‘there is no way grown women act like that,’ she remarks, as the group coo and paw and kiss and heap lavish praise on each other’s highly-wrought purple prose.
And yet, Samantha finds herself with an invite to the bunnies’ ‘Smut Salon’, and out of insatiable curiosity, she attends (much to the disdain of her self-assured and steadfast best friend, Ava). And that’s when things start to get seriously demented. In a cleverly-executed satirical twist on the nature of art and the mantra to ‘kill your darlings,’ Samantha gets swept into the bunnies disturbing, Frankensteinian exercise to do just that – to create and to kill, all in the name of the Art.
In razor-sharp and witty exchanges, Awad satirises the artistic process when the bunnies sit down in ‘Workshop’ with their professor, where the bunnies, so steadfast in their belief in and commitment to their pursuits, describe their work as variably ‘innovative’, ‘experimental’, ‘performance based’, ‘intertextual’ and ‘a hybrid.’ ‘A hybrid,’ Samantha reflects. ‘That most obscure of academic beasts. What you call something when you just don’t know what you’re doing anymore.’
Soon, the line between reality and imagination has completely collapsed, and we are fully immersed in the nightmare-scape of Samantha’s world, the atmosphere increasingly dark and subversive, as her mental state steadily deteriorates. Awad’s writing is audacious and visceral, delivering a hyperreal, meta-textual landscape where the horrors of what has come to pass are mirrored in the world around her.
‘The air is different here. Humider. Grosser. The sky a dark pink that reminds us of innards, of what happens in the bathroom with the ax with the Darlings who don’t make it. We’re passing the scary places now.’
The hyper-femininity, cloying and twee nature of the bunnies with their obsession with Pinkberry, foods in miniature and mawkish style, is sharply contrasted with the horror that unfolds at their hands. And yet, and yet, there was something missing for me in the build-up of the horror, partially because I was unsure what was even real. Are these the imaginings of a desperate MFA student losing her grip on reality, or is this group of girls and their artistic pursuits posing a genuine threat? If we had had slightly more lucidity from Samantha, I think the horror would have been more effectively delivered and sustained.
Awad’s unflinching writing style and the satirical commentary on the nature of an MFA and the artistic process were the strongest parts of this twisted story, which fell apart for me a bit with the bizarre genre-bending plot. Nevertheless, a wild ride.