AWWNYRC #3: The Road, by Catherine Jinks

This is the third book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge.

The Road

by Catherine Jinks
Allen & Unwin, 2004, ISBN: 1 74114 356 X

the road by catherine jinks

IT’S no surprise that The Road namechecks The Twilight Zone and The X-Files several times. It’s premise is quite supernatural, taking more than a dozen travellers and subjecting them to the strange phenomenon of not being able to get anywhere. This particular stretch of rural road is cursed, it seems; running out of petrol is the least of their problems.

The story begins with a woman and her infant son hiding from her abusive partner on a rural property. He finds them, bad things happen, and then the weirdness kicks in.

Out on the bitumen, car after car of disparate travellers — holiday makers, a truckie, locals going about their business — are caught up in the loop, driving without getting anywhere outside a certain radius.

It takes a while for this large cast to be assembled, primarily because each group gets its own point of view. We find out who they are, what has brought them to be driving this stretch of highway, what they hope to find at their destination. The characters are wonderfully drawn, but the back stories become tedious, a way of trying to provoke some care for the fate of each increasingly desperate set of travellers, but ultimately operating more like speed bumps or cattle grids, forcing the story to slow right down while the latest piece is introduced to the board. Few of the pieces have much to do; their back stories generally tend to be of negligible connection to their plight or the situation’s resolution.

australian women writers challenge 2012There are two characters who provide some continuity, thankfully, but this is a far cry from the incredible tension to be found in the work of another master of this kind of ensemble story, Stephen King. Perhaps because the situation the stranded travellers find themselves in never manifests a deeper message — ordinary people behave ordinarily — or because the characters have only the vague sense of the danger they’re in. The reader knows, which is where the suspense comes from as the story picks up its pace.

Having said that, however, the story is, once it gets out of low range somewhere around the halfway mark, most enjoyable, primarily for its use of landscape. There are some wonderfully descriptive scenes of nature gone awry; provoked, it seems, into being an agent of justice. And Jinks’ prose is a delight.

This is one of those yarns where patience is rewarded — where the destination is actually more rewarding than the journey.


Previous Challenge reviews:

  • The Shattered City, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, fantasy.
  • Frantic, by Katherine Howell, crime.
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    The Road – a damn fine journey

    the road, movie poster

    Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road can breathe easy — the movie is a damn fine adaptation.

    In fact, it’s probably one of the best that I’ve seen.

    The mood of the book is perfectly captured on-screen, thanks to wonderful sets depicting the ruins of civilisation and the death of nature. Abandoned cities, broken roadways littered with wrecked cars, devastated forests, wildfires and electrical storms all show the grim future. The actual event is barely mentioned, no blame apportioned. It just is.

    As in the book, the movie does not provide a strict narrative journey, but rather a series of vignettes marking the progress of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) through this blasted landscape, with flashbacks to the father’s life with his wife (Charlize Theron) before, during and after the calamity fell.

    On the road, father and son have to dodge cannibal gangs while they head south, every day a search for warmth, shelter and food. Other stray travellers they meet are viewed with suspicion, providing a crux for the film’s thematic centre.

    I felt a little let down by the conclusion in the book, but the movie, while changing it only slightly, manages with deft subtlety to make it work, and work brilliantly. Likewise there are some minor changes to events in the novel, but none are jarring, and all work to enhance the on-screen story.

    There were some likely lads in our theatre who might have been expecting some kind of Mad Max/Cyborg storyline, and I suspect by their chatting and quick departure that they left disappointed by this thoughtful portrayal of the hopelessness and drudgery of life on the road. Or maybe they’d got the wrong cinema and only stayed in the hope of Theron getting her kit off — more disappointment, there, boys. But my goodness, doesn’t she just chew up the camera?

    The casting (including Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall) was uniformally superb, some actors almost indistinguishable underneath their soot and grime and filthy teeth.

    A soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis enhanced the tone without being overly dramatic or sentimental, the camera work was striking without being flashy; there was nothing not to like about this movie.

    Director John Hillcoat has delivered an amazing reading of McCarthy’s novel that both readers and non should enjoy.

    Books of 2009

    Thank goodness for December. After a tumultuous 2009, it’s nice to have a month to draw breath in, to hunker down and finally get that heart massage I’ve been yearning for.

    I owe Chuck McKenzie a favour for getting the ball rolling, passing around an email touting for stories. The anthology died shortly after conception, but it was the rare instance this year when, by the time I’d read the announcement, I had an idea for a story. Two, in fact. I took them both on long leads for a walk in the park, and by the time I was headed for home, had settled on the one I was going to write. I sat down at the keyboard and, naturally, wrote the other one. It’s still not quite finished, and needs a serious going over, and may never see the light of day. Thing is, it happened, it’s there. The wheels were in motion for the first time in far too long.

    They’ve kept turning, too. The result is a file featuring a hodge podge of scenes, all as rough as guts, some contradictory, most muddled, but there’s a narrative in there somewhere. It’s slowly emerging out of the mist.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the words have started to come as I’ve finally got back into reading. Writing’s a machine: you need words in to get words out. That’s my assessment, anyway.

    So what words? A few of us were yakking the other day about our best reads of the year, and I was struggling to recall what I’d read, particularly in the fractured, then limbo, period of the year. Mostly review books, I think. I guess there’s a reason I don’t remember them, but then, memory’s a tricky thing.

    I do remember enjoying Glenda Larke’s The Last Stormlord, an engaging fantasy set in a beautifully realised world of desert, drought and political intrigue. Peter M Ball’s novella Horn, an urban noir featuring a murderous unicorn on the sleazy side of town, whetted the appetite for a sequel. Angry Robot offerings Slights by Kaaron Warren and Moxyland by Lauren Beukes were head and shoulders above their packmates.

    rewired post-cyberpunk anthology

    And then there was the back-catalogue stuff. A copy of Rewired: The Post-cyberpunk anthology proved enjoyable and wide-ranging, from post-apocalyptic (How We Got In Town and Out Again) to post-human (The Wedding Album), obtusely technical (Lobsters) to poetically obtuse (Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City, possible a view or two too many), and two close to my heart thanks to their Mississippi River settings, Calorie Man and Two Dreams on Trains.

    A revisiting of Stephen King’s On Writing and Kim Wilkins’ The Infernal (every bit as good as I remember it; and due for a new release, I believe) preceded two visions of life after the apocalypse, sans zombies: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these science fiction novels, so beautifully told in both language and structure. I stumbled early on in The Road while I adapted to McCarthy’s degeneration of punctuation and assault with sentence fragments, helping to set his scene. The structure was very clever, a series of vignettes, Polaroids of memories, the order not always clear, his protagonists unnamed as they stumble their way through the blighted landscape, living off scavenged goods and in fear of cannibalistic gangs. A world where trust and compassion are casualties of the need for survival. The last scenes left me a little cold, but that might be my cynicism asserting itself. Atwood’s yarn, in which a race of gene-spliced humans have inherited the world, overseen by a wonderfully depicted, mundane narrator with the inside track on the apocalypse, proved compelling from go to whoa.

    Films and TV

    true blood dvd series

    Not a good year for the moving picture in Jason-land this year, due to a protracted absence from attending either the big or small screen. The few new release movies I’ve seen just haven’t impressed. From the sofa, I’ve been enjoying revisiting Battlestar Galactica, and catching up with True Blood, Dexter, Being Human and Dead Set. I hope the new Sherlock Holmes movie might give the year a kick in the tail.

    Gigs

    In no particular order, this lot rocked: Nine Inch Nails, Gary Numan, Amanda Palmer, Jeff Martin, Emilie Autumn. At a local level, Sunas, Tycho Brahe, Felinedown, Bridget Handley, Dandelion Wine, Wendy Rule and The Wretched Villains made an impression on the synapses.

    Two albums released this year remain on rotation here in the office: The White LiesTo Lose My Life and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz!. My retro buy of the year was Beautiful Day by defunct Brisbane duo Stringmansassy: just gorgeous.