Gregory Norminton has set himself a tricky task with his fifth novel, The Devil’s Highway. It attempts to weave three seemingly unlinked stories, set over three time periods, into a single narrative. A band of native Britons, disenchanted by Roman rule, seek to rebel against their foreign overlords. A damaged military veteran attempts to rebuild his life at home after experiencing first-hand the horrors of the Afghanistan war. In a ruined future, a hellscape created by some unexplained apocalyptic event, damaged children flee slavery.
Superficially what connects each is location, with all three stories taking place on Surrey Heath. But the tie between them is, in reality, much deeper than this as the author skilfully allows the reader to see more fundamental relationship between seemingly unconnected characters. Across time they are bound by violence, abandonment and a desire for safety.
The choice of the Heath is clever in this regard as its blasted landscape, frequently prone to uncontrollable fires yet hidden within the seemingly safe commuter belt, serves as a metaphorical home for the character’s longings.
Norminton shows a deft touch in changing his writing approach between the sections. Each narrative is radically different in mode, yet with enough of a stylistic thread to prevent the reader switching off in the shift between each. Although, if I had a complaint, its that the author could have paid greater attention to the language the characters use in the future portion of the novel. The children employ a form of broken-down English, evolved in this dystopia. However, it feels as if the author hasn’t given enough thought to the form of this new language, relying too much on using existing words with just a letter chopped off, ‘guidin’, ‘runnin’, ‘roamin’ etc. If the intention is to pay homage to Riddley Walker then it doesn’t quite succeed.
Despite this, the characters in this part of the novel are perhaps the most compelling. The children are desperate for hope and cling to each each other as a light in the darkness. Yet such is the situation you grieve for them as their quest continues, so unlikely does success seem.
This despondency thought stays with you throughout the novel. In the past the Briton’s attempts to create havoc appear futile, and along the way they harm family and friends. In the present, despite offers of help, H (the soldier), finds it impossible to relate to the world he used to know, finds it impossible to trust. We see this in one heartbreaking moment, when after speaking innocently to a young girl he meets on the Heath, H flees in terror as he realises she’s 12. He fears the world will punish him for this, despite no wrongdoing on his part.
Ultimately, the reader has little faith that any of the characters will see their way through to a place of warmth and happiness. So if you’re looking for a spot of fun, The Devil’s Highway probably isn’t the novel for you. As it proceeds any chance of the unexpected joyful ending becomes increasingly unlikely. This is possibly a problem, some lightness at points could perhaps have heightened the emotional impact of the close of the novel.
As the book approaches this end the blackness closes in around the characters, despite their attempts to escape it. The writing cleverly cramps in and constricts, a literal closing of doors, so the reader is drawn deeper into the events. As the final events unfold we know that there is little to hope for. Yet within this, there is still some light. As the novel’s very structure shows, life continues, there will always be tomorrow (however grim it might seem) and that will always mean opportunity.
Gregory Norminton is a novelist born in Berkshire, England, in 1976. Educated at Wellington College, he read English at Regent’s Park College, Oxford and studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He is a Senior Lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He lives in Sheffield with his wife, Emma, and their daughter. They are Quakers.
His novels include The Ship of Fools (2002), Arts and Wonders (2004), Ghost Portrait (2005) and Serious Things (2008), all published by Sceptre. The Lost Art of Losing, a collection of aphorisms, and Thumbnails, a collection of stories, have been published by Vagabond Voices. In April 2017, Comma Press brought out his second collection of short stories, The Ghost Who Bled.
The Devil’s Highway, Norminton’s fifth novel – and his first in nearly ten years – will be published by Fourth Estate on the 25th January 2018.
The Devils Highway is available from Fourth Estate here.
Reviewed by Joseph Surtees
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