If you are the sort of person who enjoys caving, climbing and generally squeezing yourself into dangerous and risky spaces, I should probably let you know that you and I may well have personalities that are polar opposites. Not being a fan of tight spaces like caves (gargoyle generally showing more preference for wide open spaces) and not seeing the point of pointlessly risking one’s life to climb Everest, it was with slight misgivings that I delved into The White Road by Sarah Lotz, which we received from Hachette Australia for review. Brace yourselves my friends, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Adrenaline junkie Simon Newman sneaks onto private land to explore a dangerous cave in Wales with a strange man he’s met online. But Simon gets more than he bargained for when the expedition goes horribly wrong. Simon emerges, the only survivor, after a rainstorm trap the two in the cave. Simon thinks he’s had a lucky escape.
But his video of his near-death experience has just gone viral.
Suddenly Simon finds himself more famous than he could ever have imagined. Now he’s faced with an impossible task: he’s got to defy death once again, and film the entire thing. The whole world will be watching. There’s only on place on earth for him to pit himself against the elements: Mt Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.
But Everest is also one of the deadliest spots on the planet. Two hundred and eighty people have died trying to reach its peak.
And Simon’s luck is about to run out.
Despite my pathological fear of getting stuck in a tight space, the first chapter of this book – which deals with protagonist Simon’s ill-advised venture into a disused cave system with a complete nutter of a guide, to photograph the corpses of some lads who had previously undertaken the same ill-advised caving venture – had me hooked throughout. The author manages to blend mental banter with a fear of the dark and the off-putting instability of Simon’s guide Ed to create a thoroughly absorbing situation. It is in this first experience that the ills that plague Simon for the rest of the book are set up and it is certainly masterfully done.
There are a few convenient plot twists immediately after this. Simon’s blog partner and cold-hearted prick of a room-mate Thierry decides that after the “success” of Simon’s caving mission – in website traffic, if nothing else – Simon should pop off to Everest to film some corpsicles. The money is duly raised and after mild protests from Simon due to his fragile mental state, the plan is enacted. These little niggles with Thierry’s actions were forgivable I found, because this is really a book about Simon and his demons; an introspective thriller, if you will, based on why things happen rather than how they happen.
The book is split into a number of parts. The first deals with Simon’s caving experience. The second part introduces Juliet by means of her diary. Juliet is a female mountain climber of some repute (both good and bad) whose goal is to summit Everest without oxygen aids. Her diary reveals her interesting mental state at the time and her story becomes intertwined with Simon’s bid to scale Everest and take photos of frosty corpses, both as its happening and once it’s finished. The next part deals with Simon’s ascent of Everest and the complex interpersonal relationships between the climbers and the secrets they seem to be hiding. Finally, the denouement observes Simon’s descent into unreality as he grapples with the need to bring closure to his experiences.
I became gripped by Simon’s struggles the further into the book I read. The thriller part of the story was being enacted totally within Simon himself but was beautifully balanced with the physical action of the caving and mountain climbing sections. The dark, frosty atmosphere of the settings made this a perfect winter read – if you can call Brisbane’s mild drops in temperature “winter” – and I quite happily rugged up under the covers to escape into Simon’s deteriorating sense of self. (Schadenfreude for the win!)
Overall I was impressed with the way that the author managed the multiple threads of each character’s story to create a complex mix of psychological thriller and action. The ending was satisfyingly ambiguous and deliciously creepy, which was a nice payoff for having slogged up Everest and through a horrid cave system with Simon while plagued by the thought of a malevolent watcher – twice each. If you are looking for a book that will truly provide an escape from the mundane, I can heartily recommend The White Road.
Until next time,