A Fierce and Subtle Poison Annotated Playlist by Samantha Mabry
“Separation Anxiety” by Faith No More
The album that this song is on, Sol Invictus, came out last year, which was well after I’d finished the bulk of A Fierce and Subtle Poison. Still, this song has relevance to the story. It sort of starts off and grabs you, and gets more and more intense as it brings you into some spiraling breakdown. My main character, Lucas, gets broken down, broken down, built up, broken down, so, in a way, it reflects his state of mind. Also, Faith No More was my absolute favorite band when I was his age, so there’s that.
“My Mathematical Mind” by Spoon
This is another song that descends into chaos as it nears its end. I do like how the lyrics have to do with a mathematical mind (maybe, sort of, there’s also stuff about the apocalypse in there), which is supposed to be tidy and systematic, but the music eventually gets weird and discordant. There are several things in A Fierce and Subtle Poison that are supposed to be tidy and straightforward that end up being a big messes.
“Disparate Youth” by Santigold
There’s a good portion of the novel that takes place on a scooter on rural Puerto Rican roads. This song is the soundtrack for those scenes. It sounds to me like movement and sun and anticipation.
“Willow” by Israel Nash
This song is also pretty recent and was released on last year’s Silver Season. But it’s been one of my favorite songs ever since I first heard it. Like “Disparate Youth,” it reminds me of being outside. The tempo and steel also give it a bittersweet, yearning tone, so typical of really good alt-country. And that chorus is so soaring and sad and lovely, which I think is what good magical realism does, too: soar while hitting a bittersweet, yearning tone.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” by David Bowie
Right from the start of A Fierce and Subtle Poison there’s an obvious tension I tried to establish between native Puerto Ricans and “invaders.” Some of that tension is underlying, but a lot of it is overt. This song captures that very overt wariness (to put it mildly) that the people of San Juan in my story have toward Lucas, his dad, and Dr. Ford.
“Future Starts Slow” by The Kills
The chunky, delay-heavy guitar in this song just knocks me flat. And there’s just something so dark, gloomy, and groovy about this song that syncs up with the moody, gloomy, mysterious but also very powerful nature of the character of Isabel. And then this line: “If I ever give you up, my heart will surely fail.” Just reading that, it may seem overwrought, but in the context of the song it’s perfect. Like the stagger-stutter chug of the guitar is an irregular heartbeat. I have no idea if that’s what The Kills intended, but it would be cool if the lyrics reflected the music that way.
“Use Once and Destroy” by Hole
This song came out on the album Celebrity Skin, which was released when I was a senior high school. Like “Future Starts Slow,” it’s also very groovy and chuggy and rhythm heavy, which I love, probably because I played the bass when I was in high school and have always kept an ear for that. Lines in the chorus are perfect for A Fierce and Subtle Poison. Like, there’s this rough-as-all-hell journey to rescue someone (in the song, it’s just “you”), and I imagine the “rescuer” kicking through brambles and clawing through mud to get to the person, despite all the pain it might cause. And that’s Lucas.
“Bodysnatchers” by Radiohead
Sort of like the Faith No More song listed above, “Bodysnatchers” has that frenetic pace going on and that sense of things coming undone (so much distortion!). There’s also that line, “I’ve no idea what you are talking about,” which matches up with a lot of what Lucas’ relationship is like with Isabel. Lucas really wants to understand Isabel –what caused her to be the way she is, what makes her tick –but she doesn’t make it easy for him. This song (the melody) also just sounds like someone trying desperately to tear of his or her own skin, which I think parallels Isabel’s frustration with her body.
“Strange Pleasures” by Still Corners
The first time I heard this song was at the movies. I was at the Alamo Drafthouse here in Dallas, and they were using it to promote a month of programming made up of Steven Spielberg films. So, along with this song were clips of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and E.T. All of movies are so otherworldly, about our world and something out of our world colliding in beautiful and/or frightening ways. This song is so entrancing; has that lovely, otherworldly quality. And I’ve so hoped in my book to capture that collision point between our world as we know it and something out of our world.
“Peace in the Valley” by Dawes
This song is beautiful, but at the same time, to me, it’s another song about frustration, about a frustrated young man. The last line is, “If I don’t find peace in the valley, then I’ve got no place else to look.” Like, he’s hoping that this one place will bring him comfort and solace, but he’s very uncertain if that will be the case. Lucas shares that same sense of uncertainty and restlessness. It’s like, he loves Puerto Rico and feels most at home there, but –even despite that –the island doesn’t love him as much as he loves it. It won’t give up its secrets. Until the end. When maybe it does. A little.
Thank you for sharing, Samantha!
Samantha was born four days before the death of John Lennon. She grew up in dallas, playing bass guitar along to vinyl records in her bedroom after school, writing fan letters to rock stars, doodling song lyrics into notebooks, and reading big, big books.
She spends as much time as possible in the west texas desert.
A FIERCE AND SUBTLE POISON (Algonquin Young Readers, spring 2016) is her first novel.
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Hardcover, 288 pages
Published April 12th 2016 by Algonquin Young Readers
Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl--Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.
Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers--and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.
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