Book Review – Road Story by Julienne van Loon
The first thing to be said about Julienne van Loon’s Road Story is that it’s short. At 150 first pages of generously spaced print, this is a slight novel, one that took me about two hours to read. This is not to say that it wasn’t worth reading, however. Road Story is about an eighteen year-old girl called Diana Kooper. We see her in medias res, running from the scene of a car crash she has caused. Thereafter, the narrative unfolds in two directions: the first strand covers Diana’s flight from the scene of the crime and subsequent life; and the second charts her earlier life leading up to the crash. If this sounds simple, it is. But herein lies the charm of Road Story: it is an unpretentious and intelligent novel which achieves everything it sets out to achieve.
The major narrative, concerning Diana’s life after the crash, is the more interesting of the two. It transpires that Diana has left her friend Nicole Clarke unconscious in the passenger seat of the crashed car. Diana runs away, catches a train and then a bus, before getting a job at a roadhouse on a major truck-route. Okay. This is the first novel I can think of which takes place primarily at a truck-stop, but it proves to be an effective location for Road Story to play out against. Diana’s new boss is called Bob Davies, and he turns out to be a somewhat shady character with a love of betting on horse racing and a problem with some bikies. At first, the truck-stop provides excellent cover for Diana (who is essentially on the run from the law), but things start to catch up with her sooner on later.
The second narrative concerns Diana’s life from the time that she ran away from home (at age fourteen) until her car crash at age eighteen and a half. And it’s a grim tale indeed, full of drug-taking, lecherous sailors and general decreptitude. Oh, and heroin. Nicole becomes a junkie, Diana doesn’t, and of course it is the latter who ends up caring for the former. There was something very depressing about all of this, for me at least. I don’t usually mind reading hard luck tales of drugs and despair, but van Loon makes no attempt to sugar-coat any of this, nor does she provide any kind of redeeming denouement or moral. Life, van Loon seems to be saying, is nothing like the ersatz lives led in the pages of novels. Fair enough, but we need a reason to read this or any other novel. I had a feeling that 150 pages was the optimum length for this kind of material. Any more would have become even more depressing.
The narratives converge, of course. We come to see that Diana was actually doing the best she could for Nicole, and that in a sense she was correct to flee the scene of the crash. But the dark realism of this novel is unrelenting. We never discover whether Nicole has lived or died, although it would appear that she has perished. Worse, Diana had fallen pregnant to a youthful trucker earlier in the novel, and that doesn’t end well either. Many novels and novelists would have used the theme of pregnancy to suggest that while things are bad today, they may be better tomorrow, or somesuch thing, but van Loon doesn’t try to soothe us like this. The novel ends with her running again, after having received some back pay from Bob (and having stolen another $1500 out of his safe). The future is uncertain, but almost certainly bleak. It would appear, on the final page of the novel, that Diana is miscarrying. The end.
And yet I still don’t dislike Road Story. I imagine a fair few people would dislike it for some of the reasons stated above. It’s bleak, it’s unremitting, but it’s genuine. So many writers try to lie to us and themselves by tacking on false-dawn endings and Hollywood twists, but van Loon doesn’t insult our intelligence like this. Perhaps next time van Loon will write a story with a little more thirst for life in it.