I received a free ARC version of this book from Simon and Schuster UK Fiction in return for a fair review.
For twenty years, Daniel Hardesty has borne the emotional scars of a childhood trauma which he is powerless to undo, which leaves him no peace.
One August morning in 1995, the young Daniel and his estranged father Francis – a character of ‘two weathers’, of irresistible charm and roiling self-pity – set out on a road trip to the North that seems to represent a chance to salvage their relationship. But with every passing mile, the layers of Fran’s mendacity and desperation are exposed, pushing him to acts of violence that will define the rest of his son’s life.
I hold my hands up. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book very much. This was something I’d chosen based on the very fact that it was so different to anything I would normally pick up. (Apparently, just reading the same five books over and over again doesn’t make for a great book blog – who knew?).
And I am so glad I gave it a go. This blew me away. This is such a well written book. It is a novel of two parts: the first, a thriller, of the lead up and description of the traumatic event, the second, a more psychological take on the after effects of witnessing something so awful, and Daniel’s attempts to craft a life from the fragments left behind. A shift in narrative and pace like this could throw a lesser author off, but Wood handles it very well.
The story builds and escalates as you read. We learn that, from the beginning, Daniel’s mother is not keen on the idea of her estranged husband taking Daniel on this roadtrip. But we assume that this is for no other reason than because he is a flakey father, he has let his son down numerous times before, and that he can’t be trusted not to take Daniel somewhere unsuitable. And the first part of the novel is just that; we start to see the unravelling of Fran’s lies – he takes Daniel to a seedy pub, he feeds him junk food. Because we are seeing the story through Daniel’s memories (or indeed, his interpretation of his child-self’s memories as an adult who has already had to recount this story numerous times, to police, to relatives, to therapists…more on this later), dark hints are laid throughout the narrative that the worst is still yet to come. We know, almost from the offset, that something terrible is to happen, and that Daniel himself will survive it, but the other ‘twists’ are, in effect, told to us far in advance of them happening. It adds a terrible sense of foreboding to the narrative, everything becomes heightened and claustrophobic. It is very powerfully done.
The narrative style is worth a comment. It is a complex mix of the childhood naivety of the young Daniel, combined with hints to the emotional damage of the older Daniel, the sense that he’s had to recount the story many times before, and a fear that he’s forgetting, or misremembering. There are times when his guilt comes through, when he tries to justify his behaviour or the fact that he didn’t realise what was going to happen. This is very much the story of someone still in the grasp of PTSD – which becomes evident as we hear of Daniel’s life post the road trip. It is very cleverly, and sensitively handled.
That Daniel is a fan of the programme his father works on is no coincidence. He listens to the audiobook of it at first to pass the time in the car, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t the only work of fiction that he is listening to. Once the lies and inconsistencies from his father first start to reveal themselves, they steamroll. There is something very poignant in the description where Daniel, desperate to distract himself from what’s going on, makes calculations as to how long the battery on his walkman will last. It is a moment of stark contrast; reminding us how young and childlike Daniel is, and yet how terrifying and adult the situation he finds himself in is.
The prose is beautifully written, and quite often as I was reading I found myself outrightly admiring the writing style. It may be the English nerd in me, but I really appreciate the way that Wood handles language. It is rich and brilliant, and also chilling in parts. On the one hand, there is the description of the physical geography of the road trip, which carries a preciseness with it that fit’s Daniel’s attempts to recreate the story as accurately as possible. On the other, Wood manages to capture the uneasiness a bad gut feeling which creeps across Daniel and the novel, until you are certain that the only outcome can be tragedy.
The ending, for some, could be seen as slow paced, but personally I enjoyed the shift in tone. We see the enduring effects those fateful days have had on him, and how he lives under the shadow of his father – a man who he is terrified of turning in to. This is not quite a story of healing – that would be too simplistic – but there is something almost like hope at the end. It is a realistic hope, it is not the fairytale kind, there is still work to do. (Work has already gone on, of course, there is mention of his coping mechanisms, therapists, the things he has done to counteract the wrongs of his father, but as in life, there is no magic solution, these are all just stations on his path to somewhere better.
Overall, this is a very strong, dark, thriller. Not for the faint hearted, it doesn’t shy away from trauma and the aftershocks in a way that stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. I couldn’t tear myself away, and I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.