A while ago I read my first novel by Sarah Lotz; The Three (review here). I went into the novel completely blind, knowing only what the blurb had told me. As fate would have it, picking up this book was one of my best reading decisions made that year. I absolutely loved it, and was completely submerged in the lingering terror which the author had created.
As you can imagine, I was beyond ecstatic when Hodder & Stoughton very kindly gifted me a copy of Lotz’s latest book, The White Road. My excitement only grew when I realised that a portion of the book is actually focused upon the main character caving in Wales. Being Welsh, and a lover of our fantastic natural locations, I was already sold.
The White Road follows Simon Newman, a man described as an ‘adrenaline junky’. Using a strange man as a guide whom he has met online, Simon delves into the depths of a dangerous cave in Wales, one which already has a sombre history. When the weather takes an unexpected turn, Simon is the only one of the pair to emerge. Yet escaping the caves was only the beginning, as Simon is once more confronted by his past when video footage of his near death experience goes viral. Eager to increase the footfall on their blog, Simon is encouraged by a friend to tempt death once more, this time facing a greater extreme, the tallest mountain in the world; Everest. Two hundred people have died attempting to reach its peak, and Simon is charged with filming the entire thing, the more gruesome the better. But normality is tipped on its head in such extreme conditions, and Simon is carrying much more baggage than his much needed supply of oxygen. Baggage which refuses to surrender to the past. . .
I won’t try to deny the fact that I read the blurb with a slight trepidation, worried how her latest work would live up to her previous success. My worries were completely unfounded. Sarah Lotz has proved yet again that she is a master at orchestrating a general sense of unease, a feeling which peaks into terror at the most pivotal of moments. She establishes the atmosphere of the book from the very first pages, wasting little time on the necessaries. For instance, readers are greeted initially by an email, one which reads simultaneously as a grave goodbye and confession. Then, once we turn to the next page, our narrator declares bluntly with his first words that:
‘I met the man who would save my life twice – and ultimately destroy it – on a potholed road in the arse-end of the Welsh countryside’ (p. 5).
As you can surely tell, the author has created an opening fueled by intrigue, captivating readers from the start.
As the blurb states, part of this book is set underground in a dangerous series of caves known as Cwm Pot. Not only does Lotz create a sense of utter claustrophobia with her descriptions of the cave itself, but she also heightens the eeriness with the general knowledge we learn of the caves. Simon must battle against the most challenging section of the caves, known disturbingly as the ‘Rat Race’ for its crazy tunnel like twists and turns, the body contorted into the most extreme positions. Not only must he accomplish this, but he must also do it whilst accompanied by a man he literally knows nothing about, a man who appears to be completely deranged. But perhaps the most fearful of all is the knowledge that deep under the earth lies the bodies of those who have failed to make it out of the cave, bodies which are condemned to an afterlife underneath miles of rock. Not only do these aspects play on general fears, they also create a sense of eerie foreshadowing.
This book is firmly split into three parts; we have the caving experience, and what Simon must endure whilst there, followed by his expedition to Everest, and then finally life after both the caves and the mountain have released him. I think the structure of the book greatly adds to the general air of uncertainty throughout, taking us from the settings and characters we have become grounded in, to new areas which we must face afresh. Additionally, there is also another narrative voice within the book. I won’t give this away but I will say it brings the book together as a whole, adding an extra layer of foreboding to an already suffused novel, especially where the parallels between this character and Simon are concerned.
Initially, after the thrills of the Welsh caving, I felt that the novel was going to lag a bit, losing some of its drive. Whilst I do think he agreed almost too lazily to undertake such a momentous adventure, my opinion changed quickly, with the Everest section actually becoming my favourite part. I think the reason for this is due to the fact that the terror and grimness of this section are founded very strongly in reality. Everest is famous for its ‘Death Zone’, aptly named because most bodies can only endure such staggering altitudes before it begins to shut down. As such, many of those killed whilst climbing have fallen in this ‘zone’. It was this idea of the mass of bodies still stranded and frozen upon Everest which really wormed its way into my mind, refusing to unlatch itself.
Due to the extreme physical conditions, returning bodies is almost impossible, which means that families can be forever parted from their loved ones. Reading this book at night, placing myself in their positions, unable to have the dignity and closure of a funeral, produced a very strong response from me, which was aided by the strange occurrences within the book itself. I found it fascinating to consider what this means for the mountain itself, as well as the hordes of would be climbers. It actually pushes me to do research of my own, learning about some of the famous bodies which have actually become landmarks to climbers, one such case being a corpse with famous name of ‘Green Boots’. It turns the mind very strongly to the morals of such enterprises, especially when I read of the controversial cases where people have actually been left for dead. In such a high pressured environment, it is quite literally a save yourself kind of world, something Simon comes to learn for himself.
The horror of death aside, it is also a genuinely interest insight into what such an arduous climb can mean both physically and mentally. I am not climbing expert, but I think it is clear that Lotz has done a lot of research to try and produce a novel which is as accurate as possible, as well as respectful to those who have endured such impossible feats. I have no burning desire to attempt to ever reach the summit of Everest, let alone the much lower Base Camp, but I thoroughly enjoyed living vicariously through our characters.
One of the things which most impressed me about Lotz’s previous novels, The Three, was the use of mixed media and different narrative voices. Whilst this is not as prevalent within her newest novel, it is still in existence, and I think she has employed the correct amount of differing techniques. We have Simon’s first person narrative, a few emails, and another narrative from a different person in the form of a journal/diary. These were all very successful and pushed the story forwards effortlessly. One of the devices which I probably enjoyed the most was the intertextual references to T. S . Elliot’s poem, ‘The Wasteland’. She mostly focuses upon the line ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you’, taking this line and mutating it into a malevolent force which is continually present within the novel. Just like The Three, I found myself unsure what was happening, yet simultaneously knowing that something creepy was afoot. I envy Lotz her ability to create such malevolent unease.
One of the only thing which did bother me about this novel was the use of foreshadowing from our main character. Once I had noticed it, I could not stop picking out phrases where he would hint gloomily to what lay ahead. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using this device, but after a while it does lose its initial impact and become quite mundane. There was only so many times I could read variations of ‘but there was far worse to come’ before it became bothersome and interrupted the natural narrative voice.
My second read of Sarah Lotz’s work was a joy to experience. She has proved yet again that she commands a firm grasp on creating such atmospheric reads, and has shown once more that her writing style does not lie in the more conventional, traditional methods. It is amazing to find more female authors who are capable of producing such lingering unease in genres which are often prescribed to stereotypically male orientated authors. Without a doubt, the grim reality of this novel complimented the imagination and fictitious aspects perfectly, producing a superbly balanced read.
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Disclaimer – I was kindly given this book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own, honest opinions, and will NOT write a favourable review in return for a complimentary book.