Book Review: The Low Road, Chris Womersley (Scribe, 2007)

Chris Womersley has an Ian McEwan problem. Worse can be said for a budding novelist. But if you know what I mean about McEwan, you’ll understand why this is a begrudgingly mixed review.

The Low Road is a very good novel about two men whose lives intersect just as each is at their nadir. Families long since alienated, caught up in a gritty and decidedly unromantic underworld, they find each other, and in their travels on the run, they give each other reason for hope.

The writing here is adept, like McEwan’s. Imagery is Womersley’s strongest suit. An example,

  Of acquiring his own tattoo, he had no memory, not even of the scabbing that occurred afterwards. It was as if – like the skin itself – it had always been there and sometimes as he rubbed at it, he believed it had just floated to the surface, some thin wreckage washed up on the shores of his body.

Womersley’s prose often paints a cinematic picture. One could argue that he is prone to using what Salman Rushdie recently called “filmic devices” that resonate with readers who have been trained by film-makers to imagine in a certain way. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, several times I found myself musing at how good a film this story would make, doing my own armchair casting.

However, the story is where the ‘McEwan problem’ begins and ends. I should explain that I hold a grudge against Ian McEwan for his novel, Saturday (Random House, 2005), which was beautifully written but really had no story in my opinion. It’s unfair to say that The Low Road has no story. There is great promise of redemption in the set up. Would each of these men indeed be the other’s salvation? They are flawed but their humanity drew my compassion. I invested fully in their relationship and I wanted it to unfold more than Womersley allowed.

Still, it was a good read and I’m glad I discovered this Australian author. His skill at imagery reminds me of modern masters such as Rushdie, Peter Carey, and yes, the very talented Mr. McEwan.

Womersley’s second novel, Bereft (Scribe, 2010), won the Australian Book Industry Award for Literary Fiction.

A short rant about airport bookstores…

I picked this book up in an airport bookstore in New Zealand after having been disappointed with the title selection at airports in Toronto, Chicago, and LA, where my journey began. At some point in the last year or two, someone wrongly decided that the only fiction airport bookstores should carry are books that inspired hit movies (Moneyball anyone?). I’m glad Asia Pacific is ahead of this curve. As for Womersley, some discerning screenwriter may yet make him a fixture on the shelves of LAX.