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The Low Road by Chris Womersley
From the Dustjacket
A young petty criminal, Lee, wakes in a seedy motel with a bullet in his side and a suitcase of stolen money, his memory hazy as to how he got there. Soon he meets Wild, a doctor who is escaping his own disastrous life, and the two men set out for the safety of the countryside.
As they flee the city, they develop an uneasy intimacy, inevitably revisiting their pasts even as they desperately seek to evade them. Lee is haunted by a brief stint in jail, while Wild is on the run from the legacy of medical malpractice. But Lee and Wild are not alone: they are pursued through an increasingly alien and gothic landscape by the ageing gangster Josef, who must retrieve the stolen money and deal with Lee to ensure his own survival. Ultimately, all three men are forced to confront the parts of themselves they sought to outrun.
Part noir thriller, part modern tale of alienation and despair, The Low Road seduces the reader into a story that unfolds and deepens hypnotically. This is a brilliant debut novel.
Publisher : Scribe
First published : 2007
ISBN : 9781921215476
No. Pages : 280 pages
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The Low Road is a dark chronicle of a brief life on the run as two men try to escape the consequences of their own weaknesses with a misguided belief that salvation is their destiny. Chris Womersley has written a confronting debut novel that offers little hope for the two central characters, pacing them along their desolate road, merely observing their desperate journey. This is an Australian noir thriller in the tradition of Jim Thompson's The Getaway told in a rich, lavish voice.
In the dirty rooms of the Parkview Motel on the outer fringes of the city, the paths of two men on the run cross in desperate circumstances. Wild is a disgraced doctor hopelessly hooked on morphine and facing a charge of manslaughter, or rather, fleeing from those who would charge him. Lee, on the other hand is a petty crim, a young man currently lying on his motel room bed with a bullet in his side and a bag of cash next to him on the floor. He needs a doctor, no matter how doped up he might be.
Showing the kind of cowardly instincts that brought him the disgrace he now faces, Wild refuses to remove the bullet. Instead, he offers to take Lee to another doctor, someone who lives in an isolated country town, thus serving his own purposes of providing an opportunity to escape while making it look as though he is helping the wounded man.
With Wild at the wheel they set off with the expectation that their journey will be a simple one, albeit uncomfortable for Lee. However these two men have a history of unfailingly making poor choices and they haven't travelled terribly far before they make their first, marking their passage for anyone who is pursuing them to follow.
Lee's past begins to seep out as he becomes more affected by his wounds. We get a glimpse into the personal tragedy that marked his early life, the hardship he endured along with his sister and the choices he made that saw him slip into the life of a petty criminal, eventually picked up for his crimes and put into prison where he served a short stretch. It's his time in prison that proves to have shaped him into a darker individual and this is the side of him that slowly emerges.
Addiction is a concentrated form of futility; it was almost worth it, never quite so.
Wild's morphine addiction puts their freedom at risk after he loses his stolen supply and goes hunting for more. The needs of a drug addict override all other perils and this is never more evident than in Wild's midnight forays while Lee slips into and out of consciousness. The story of his slide into addiction is a bleak one which simply gets worse when he reveals the reason why he has, firstly, been suspended from practicing as a doctor and, secondly, come to be facing criminal charges.
Finally there is the looming threat of Josef, an aging gangster who is on a search and destroy mission for making the mistake of entrusting Lee with the money that he has stolen.
The Low Road is set in the grimy outskirts of anytown, a setting that is distinctive only in that there is a feeling of hopeless desolation about it. The two central characters are as pitiful as each other. The first having risked his life for a paltry amount of money while the self-absorbed doctor believes he is travelling towards his own redemption yet still refuses to save himself.
As readers we are on a journey of discovery as we read The Low Road, watching as each character is dissected and laid bare in front of us. Whereas with most stories you feel a deepening affinity for the central characters as the story progresses, I found that the exact opposite was happening in this case. There is a rottenness in both Wild and Lee, a malignancy searching for a place to lie dormant.
The story builds to a shocking conclusion as despair overcomes hope and rage and violence spew forth in a sickening final display. The inevitability of the ending makes it no less provocative and ensures that you're left thinking about it long after it's over.
If ever there were a book that screams Ned Kelly Award contender then this is it with outstanding character development coupled with a strong sense of place that simply leaps off the page at you. The subject matter is dark, perhaps even depressing and some readers may be put off by this, but the truth is, Chris Womersley captures the uglier side of life with a vivid clarity that cannot be ignored.
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