Following its release in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita presented a precarious trap for readers. Its “protagonist,” Humbert Humbert, is little more than a delusional child rapist narrating his own vile actions. And yet, one cannot help but get swept up in his romantic language, and perhaps even more strangely, in the novel’s brilliant sense of humor. This would explain why, fifty years after its first publishing, Lolita no longer occupies a spot on the list of banned books, but rather sits comfortably with the greatest novels of the English language.
The juxtaposition of a horrifically evil narrative with magnificent wordplay inspires internal conflict in readers who sympathize with both the rhetorically skilled narrator and with Dolores Haze, the victim of his atrocities. In the end, Nabokov’s prosaic acrobatics make it all too easy for the reader to become numb to Dolores’s plight.
In this sense, Tammy Greenwood’s Rust & Stardust acts as a compelling companion piece to Lolita. Based on the true story of eleven-year-old Sally Horner’s kidnapping at the hands of Frank La Salle in 1948, Greenwood gives a fictional account of the events from the perspectives of several characters surrounding the narrative. Not only does Nabokov make reference to La Salle in his novel, but Rust & Stardust’s title also brings the story into conversation with Lolita as it’s actually the final line from Humbert Humbert’s poignant poem Wanted: “And the rest is rust and stardust.”
In the context of the latter novel, the poem emphasizes the narrator’s solipsistic, delusional worldview where Dolores Haze (“Lolita”) is not his victim, but rather his beloved. Accordingly, this allusion to Nabokov’s novel bears with it a layer of irony, as Rust & Stardust functions largely as an antithesis to Lolita.
Though the two narratives show similarities at a base level, Greenwood’s vivid, captivating writing style entirely avoids the romantic, often humorous wordplay found in Lolita. Whereas Nabokov relates the perspective of the criminal, Rust & Stardust is firmly Sally Horner’s story, not Frank La Salle’s. Greenwood’s respectfully solemn prose carries readers through the heartbreaking narrative which often proves incredibly difficult to read. Rather than tempting her readers to sympathize with an evil man, Greenwood invites us to revere Sally Horner’s bravery and optimism throughout her nightmarish ordeal.
Through every narrowly missed connection that could save Sally’s life, Greenwood’s narrative grips readers from start to finish. Because of this it’s hard to say I enjoyed the novel; it’s a tragic story made all the more stomach turning owing to the fact it’s a child undergoing such torment. And yet…I couldn’t put it down. Interspersed throughout the brutal narrative are moments of great beauty, like the altruistic kindness from a stranger going out of their way to help Sally, or an artful turn of phrase in Greenwood’s prose. Rust & Stardust tells an unsettling story, but ultimately proves a worthwhile read (especially for fans of Lolita).