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Book Review: End of the Road (Edited by Jonathan Oliver)

‘An enriching and enjoyable example of the diversity and inventiveness that a themed anthology can offer!’

end_of_the_road_250x384Editor Jonathan Oliver builds upon the success of previous Solaris Books anthologies House of Fear, Magic and The End of the Line to deliver his most accomplished and diverse anthology to date. In a sense this can be seen as a companion volume to the aforementioned The End of the Line, this time focussing on roads rather than the underground, and it shares that book’s relaxed approach to the writer’s interpretations of the theme.

Opening story ‘We Know Where We’re Going’, a story told in its own phonetically rendered dialect by Philip Reeve, an author better known for children’s fiction, works as a statement of intent for the anthology as a whole. Demonstrating to the reader that this is no run-of-the-mill anthology and that they should be prepared to experience stories and discover authors outside of their usual reading habits. The story itself concerns a community of road builders in an undefined post-apocalypse future and, although the outcome is largely as expected, is wonderfully crafted, weaving in the history and circumstances of the group of characters without having to resort to chunks of exposition and the skilful writing of the language allows for the reader to pick it up quickly and become fully involved in the narrative.

The strong opening is further cemented with the second story ‘Fade to Gold’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. A captivating story set in the countryside of Thailand, it is the strongest story of an exceptional selection and it would be a travesty if it were not to feature amongst at least one ‘Year’s Best’ collection or award nomination list. The story focuses on a young woman called Thidakesorn, who has been passing for a male soldier, and her meeting with a mysterious woman named Ploy who she agrees to escort through the jungle and villages. Mythology and folklore are woven into the tale and the evocation of place is so deftly handled that the reader will be surprised to look up from the book and discover that they aren’t in Thailand after all.

Next up is Ian Whates’ ‘Without a Hitch’ which is far more than the obligatory ‘hitchhiker’ story it at first appears to be. Ordinarily cautious of strangers, salesman Ben finds himself picking up a young woman whilst on the road and his luck appears to be in when bad traffic forces them to stop for the night at a motel and share a bed. Touching on the concept of multiple worlds, the only criticism would be that the central idea of the story is so strong it feels deserving of a lengthier format to really do it justice.

‘Balik Kampung (Going Back)’ by Zen Cho takes things in an altogether darker direction as the recently deceased Lydia drives out of hell on a motorcycle in search of the cause of her death. Flavoured with influences of Malaysian myth and customs this is another well told tale, and another new writer to watch out for.

The engine of the book continues to purr as it moves into ‘Driver Error’ by Paul Meloy. An initially straightforward seeming story, about a father heading to collect his daughter from a party and witnessing a car accident, refuses to take the route you are expecting and by its shattering conclusion is not only demanding of a repeat read but also stubborn in its refusal to budge from your mind.

‘Locusts’ by Lavie Tidhar is another example of the writer’s ability to infuse real life people and events with a hint of fantasy and spiritualism. It’s an approach that he has used to notable success in longer works such as Osama and The Violent Century but this short piece is too lightweight and lacking in action to really grip the reader despite some lovely prose.

Any book about roads simply has to have a story set in the barren outback of Australia and in the case of ‘The Track’ by Jay Caselberg it provides yet another highpoint in the anthology. The story of Kevin and Jason travelling across a long, haunted road in the outback as a dust storm brews contains description of the environment and setting so brilliantly written you can almost feel your mouth going dry at the prospect of being in that car in the centre of such an unforgiving landscape. A story that is harsh and uncompromising like the land it depicts.

‘Dagiti Timayap Garda (Of the Flying Guardians)’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is another tale infused with myth and folklore told from a viewpoint that will either engage the reader or leave them miffed. Those that are able to embrace the narrative will be rewarded with an engaging story which focuses on the impact any new road system expansion can have on the surrounding environment and culture.

Grabbing the reader from its first line Helen Marshall’s ‘I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said’ is a haunting and poetic ghost story that is by turns shocking and unsettling but ultimately uplifting as it tells of the dangers of taking a road trip with the wrong person.

‘The Widow’ by Rio Youers is the equivalent of taking a sports car along a winding mountain road with just the flimsiest of aluminium barriers preventing you from plunging to a fiery death. By far the most visceral of stories on offer with its unhinged, grief-stricken protagonist exacting her ‘revenge’ in a range of forceful ways. In lesser hands it could all feel a bit exploitive and nasty for nasty’s sake but Youers’s polished characterisation and detailed building of setting  brings to mind Stephen King’s ability to ground even the worst of horrors into the recognisable everyday.

Echoing The Canterbury Tales, Anil Menon’s ‘The Cure’ features four travellers on a pilgrimage to an Indian temple coming together and recounting their stories. The characters are distinctive and the author does a great job conveying the claustrophobic nature of the situation and the fraught tensions that can exist when strangers find themselves together in a confined environment.

Sophia McDougall’s ‘Through Wylmere Woods’ is a companion piece to her story ‘Mailer Daemon’ which appeared in the aforementioned Magic anthology. Whilst it works as a self-contained piece it does create a sense that it would be better appreciated as part of a larger work. Thematically it fits well with some of the other stories, in particular the Reeve and Loenen-Ruiz and their similar depictions of highway expansion and its impact. The story has a pleasingly Gaimanesque style where the fantastical elements are lightly sprinkled into a depiction of a very recognisable family dynamic.

‘Bingo’ by writing duo S.L.Grey is a rather bleak detour after the lighter style of the previous story. Displaying a similar level of visceral detail as the Youers story it doesn’t quite achieve that tale’s level of roundedness and ultimately feels a little too grim and mean-spirited to satisfy.

The most complex of all the stories, ‘Peripateia’ by Vandana Singh demands the reader’s full attention, and possibly multiple readings, but in turn rewards with a complex, spiritual and rich story on the nature of reality and the human ability to deal with loss and grief.. Seamlessly meshing complex scientific hypotheses with recognisable human emotion, it is an accomplished story that will stay in mind for a long time after reading.

The anthology culminates strongly with ‘Always in Our Hearts’ from Adam Nevill. A deeply unsettling atmosphere is maintained throughout this intriguing story of taxi driver Ray and his increasingly bizarre series of passengers. The true nature of what is going on is subtly woven into the narrative, building tension through to a devastating climax.

An enriching and enjoyable example of the diversity and inventiveness that a themed anthology can offer. This is one book not to be missed

ROSS WARREN

Publisher: Solaris Books
Paperback (242pp)
Release Date:  5 December 2013

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1 comment

  1. andrea norwood

    I love reading Anthologies and I am sure from reading a few lines of this review that I am going to get a treat once I read this!

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