Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Rhythm of the Road.

Most of the really great coming of age books begin with a certain restless dissatisfaction, an urge to run somewhere, anywhere that isn't here. Fueled by anger that is initially subdued, then begins to simmer with a helpless desperate, the narrator comes to a point where she either makes it through, or she doesn't. Some don't. Most do.

Lots of stories can be draped over that skeleton. And even if you read story after story of tortured, bitter adolescence, those good stories still suck you in and make you ache with the familiarity of how closely it comes to your own teenage angst.

Keeping its own alongside such knockout books about teenage girls who live day to day grinding their teeth into dust - Jeannette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the late Amanda Davis'Wonder When You'll Miss Me leap to mind - is Albyn Leah Hall's fantastic debut novel The Rhythm of the Road.

Jo Pickering is twelve when her father Bobby, an Irish lorry driver working in England, pick up a hitchhiking musician and drive her 36 miles to Manchester. The hitchhiker, Cosima Stewart, is an aspiring country music singer, and is at once both friendly yet cool, charming both father and daughter, who begin to keep an eye out for her band, Cosima and Her Goodtime Guys, dropping in to hear her play in bars and festivals when they can. Jo especially is fascinated by the glamorous Cosima, sensing a connection in the music her band plays and the rootless existence both Cosima and Jo seem to share. Cosima, who seems to enjoy Jo's hero worship, treats her as a cross between a little sister and a pushy fan, sending confusing mixed signals to a girl who has no sister or mother figure; who has, in fact, only Bobby's big blue truck and the open road, the only home she knows.

As Jo grows into adolescence, she begins to feel the lack of female teachers, and uncertainly pushes out and away from Bobby in her quest to figure out how to move from girl to woman. Bobby, who needs Jo as much as Jo needs Bobby, begins to retreat into "dark days," becoming less and less capable. As her father's depression worsens, Jo throws herself fully into her adoration of Cosima, her enthusiasm gradually moving into a terrifying obsession.

Hall skillfully allows little Jo to take the reader by the hand and lead her through the path of her life, pulling as inexorably forward as a highway. As Jo matures, she begins to spiral out of control, slowly at first then picking up speed, and Hall stretches out the tension until the ghastly conclusion begins to appear on the horizon, and the reader is locked in the truck as it barrels straight ahead.

The Rhythm of the Road moves back and forth between two love stories, the love between a father and his little girl, and the doomed love between Bobby and Rosalie, Jo's gothy, absentee young mother. Each member of the dysfunctional, nomadic family is drawn richly, yet darkly, each one yearning to run away from themselves to become something bigger, something better. Cosima, who is as bright and brassy as an American country singer in the U.K. can be, is as shiny and distant as the sun, drawing pale Bobby and Jo toward her time after time, leaving them slightly burned, but still wanting more.

When I was younger, my favorite amusement park ride lifted you straight up, six stories in the air, slowly, slowly, before plunging screamingly back down to the ground. Even though I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen, it didn't make the ride any less thrilling.

Rhythm of the Road was kind of like that.


Rhythm of the Road
by Albyn Leah Hall
2007 by St. Martin's Press
Hardcover, 309pp
ISBN: 0-312-35944-6

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