Australian writer Chris Womersley’s début novel The Low Road (2007) has just been published in the UK for the first time. It’s an intense thriller focussing on three men linked through crime and the ghosts of their past: Lee who’s on the run with some extortion money, Wild, a disgraced doctor struck off due to gross negligence connected to his morphine habit (and facing a prison sentence) and Josef, an ageing criminal sent to hunt down and kill Lee.
When Lee’s wounded by a gunshot to his stomach, Wild ends up using his medical skills to save him temporarily – although he can’t take the bullet out – so they begin a journey together towards another doctor friend of Wild’s in a safe place in the country. All the while Josef is edging ever closer to the pair, intent on getting back the cash (a paltry sum we’re told time and time again. Lee is risking his life on nothing really).
Let’s get the Cormac McCarthy comparisons out the way first (because there will be). The Low Road does have flavours of both The Road in its dystopian bleak journey and No Country for Old Men in its depiction of a collection of interlinked characters travelling towards each other for an inevitable Western-style show-down. But that’s no bad thing. Womersley’s book shares a similar fatalistic tone, aided by his dense evocative prose. This style is a selling point, and works in agreeable juxtaposition to the highly plotted thriller-ish narrative. Like The Road, there’s also a sense of dislocation and timelessness – this could be any place, any time. Instead it’s more a story about mankind’s capacity for violence and self-destruction which could happen equally in Australia, America, Europe or beyond.
Womersley jumps between all three characters’ perspectives – although Josef’s view only features in a few chapters. That’s a shame really because I wanted to know more about Josef – especially in the light of some of the decisions he makes towards the end of the novel. Wild and Lee are more developed, but again there’s still a distance. Their dark horrible secrets are hinted at but held back till the final section – and you might look at Lee in particular in quite a different light once it’s revealed. His section also features three present tense chapters focussing on his secret (an event during his prison sentence) that clearly shaped the man he’s become.
The Low Road is one of those rarities – a fusion of the literary with a pacey filmic plot. On the whole it works (although occasionally I felt it was one metaphor too much). But be warned – it’s a dark, bleak and ultimately nihilistic world view with no hope of redemption.