Dizz Tate’s debut novel, Brutes, opens with a disappearance: Sammy Liu-Lou, daughter of a famous televangelist and an enigmatic rebel with shaved hair. When her mother discovers her empty bed, one question echoes around this fictitious Florida town, “tickling” the surface of the lake that lies ominously undisturbed at its centre: “Where is she?”
Somewhat infuriatingly, Sammy is to remain a mystery, since this novel is not about her, but the gang of eighth-grade girls hunched behind binoculars at their bedroom windows, ogling her – and all other residents’ – every move. These are Tate’s “brutes”, who together make up the book’s sardonic yet vulnerably naive first-person plural narrator. Sammy’s vanishing is just one diversion in what reads like a literary house of mirrors, deliberately only scratching the surface of the dubious (and occasionally supernatural) carryings-on in this swampy, theme park-adjacent landscape. As a search party of evangelical groupies unfolds, the girls introduce us to a suspect cast of characters including Sammy’s cartoonishly villainous best friend, Mia who, alongside her mother and a man named Stone, recruit kids for their talent show Star Search.
While Brutes wades around the chilling revelations at its centre, it is anchored by one idea: “that the stories we told were not just stories, but creatures, both dangerous and true”. In this magic realist, warped Florida fairytale, a Lynchian reinterpretation of The Virgin Suicides, trauma manifests in the most unpredictable of ways. Each girl dreams of becoming its protagonist; through glimpses into their future, we discover the path to stardom has a high price to pay.
Previously longlisted in the Sunday Times short story award, Tate traverses familiar territory in Brutes. She grew up in Orlando and her stories often focus on Florida and the fierce bonds between female friends. In Brutes, she paints the girls’ turf in glorious (sometimes repulsive) Technicolor – “the stink of America (microwaved plastic, air freshener, hot oil)”, alligators “rebranded as therapy dogs” – interspersed with flashes of whip-smart, bone-dry humour. In this slippery debut where much is difficult to pin down, Tate acutely captures the precariousness of girlhood, its growing pains and what it is to be “born out of rage”.
• Brutes by Dizz Tate is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply