THE LOW ROAD - Chris Womersley
Bleak, stark, pitiless, violent, hypnotic and strangely satisfying was my immediate reaction to THE LOW ROAD, and interestingly it's staying with me for quite a while after I've finished it. Mind you, THE LOW ROAD is not by any means an easy or enjoyable book.
Bleak - well the landscape in which the book takes place could be any dirty, grimy, lost city and the despairing suburbs. In fact it's very very hard to tell where the book is actually set until very late in the finale, so it could be New York, Stockholm, Sydney, anywhere really. Not only is the landscape bleak, the characterisations are bleak - there's nobody much in this book who, on first reading, seems much like anybody you'd want to know. Lee's just another pathetic little gangster - shot in the process of pinching something that doesn't belong to him - who could possibly care what happens to him. Wild is a drug-addicted, suspended General Practitioner - self-loathing and self-justification in equal parts.
Stark in that there's an honesty to these characterisations that is searing - everybody's stripped back to the bare essentials of who they are.
Pitiless in that Womersley lays out the stories of these characters without asking for understanding, pity, sympathy or acceptance for who they are or the situation they are in - and yet....
Violence is implicit in most of the moves that the 3 characters make - they intimidate, kill, demand their way ahead to their ultimate goals. Even in attempting kindness there is a violence in their approach which is startling and very confronting.
Hypnotic in that despite all of the previous components you just can't put THE LOW ROAD down.
Strangely satisfying in that the main characters slowly reveal their human frailties and you can't help but feel a connection - despite their intrinsic awfulness - to people who have placed themselves into their respective positions, but perhaps, just perhaps, there's reasons why we all do what we do.
A young petty criminal, Lee, wakes in a seedy motel with a bullet in his side and a suitcase of stolen money, his memory hazy as to how he got there. Soon he meets Wild, a doctor who is escaping his own disastrous life, and the two men set out for the safety of the countryside.
As they flee the city, they develop an uneasy intimacy, inevitably revisiting their pasts even as they desperately seek to evade them. But Lee and Wilde are not alone: they are pursued through an increasingly alien and gothic landscape by the ageing gangster Josef, who must retrieve the stolen money and deal with Lee to ensure his own survival. Ultimately, all three men are forced to confront the parts of themselves they sought to outrun.
Part dark thriller, part modern tale of alienation and despair, The Low Road seduces the reader into a story that unfolds and deepens hypnotically. This is a brilliant debut novel.