(The Road North)
by Emma Holm
reviewed by Annie Prime
Vera has just left school and she doesn’t know what she wants. When asked, she can’t even think of a single thing she likes. It is summer and she is restless, anxious about the future, and disgusted by the pitiful mediocrity of the adult lives that surround her. She is itching, but not for anything in particular. Vera and her childhood friend Iris have a plan. Long ago they decided to steal their friend’s car, drive north and commit a crime. They were wronged in the past, and this will be their revenge. The reader is left guessing about both crime and cause.
When they meet to embark on their journey it is clear that their once-tight friendship has cooled and silence now gapes between them. Iris is confident, moody and dominating. Vera no longer knows how to speak to her. When they stay the night with Iris’s relatives, Vera is instantly drawn to her friend’s cousin Lo. It is unclear whether Vera has entertained homosexual thoughts before, but if she has, they have never been acted on. Vera and Lo’s stolen midnight kisses light a fire inside Vera that shines in the darkness of her awkward, tedious life, but when morning comes, the road trip must resume, and Vera is once more enveloped in a heavy silence.
There are flashbacks to childhood, when the two girls were inseparable. They used to spend hours building and furnishing a realistic doll’s house where they dreamed of living together one day. Iris’s mother was a melancholy woman and reluctant mother, placating her fiery-tempered daughter when she could, sipping alcohol throughout the day. Mothers are portrayed as benevolent but sad, and father figures are absent or unimportant. Vera recalls how her lifelong aversion to men began at a young age – they were always too big and too loud for her. She wants the world to be filled with lovely women with soft hair. The flashback narrative also recounts several occasions of men threatening and harassing the two girls, and the reader gets an inkling that the girls’ impending crime is revenge for a sexual assault on Iris.
There are several things that I find very impressive about this book, especially considering it is a debut by a young author. One is the prose itself, which is spare, yet evocative and captivating. One gets the feeling that Emma Holm has carefully studied the craft of creative writing, and yet the text reads as an effortless flow. There is not a wasted word or a cliché to be found. Equally impressive is the author’s talent for conveying complex tangles of adolescent emotion in simple words and images. Nostalgia, yearning and uncertainty of self are evoked viscerally in the reader, along with the bittersweet shame of intimate, half-forgotten childhood memories. At points it almost feels like reading a much better-written version of your own teenage diary.
The book’s two main themes are friendship and the female experience. The relationship between Iris and Vera is complex and painful, as is often the case when close childhood girlfriends grow apart. There are straight-to-the-bone descriptions of Vera’s burning jealousy when Iris makes other friends, or when Iris begins to grow into a woman while Vera is still floundering in her girlhood.
There is an ever-present threat of male violence throughout Vera’s delicate coming-of-age. Iris matures faster and enjoys flirtations, but Vera’s forays into heterosexual sex are frenzied and pleasureless. Perhaps she is too young to realise that she is allowed to follow her instincts for homosexual affection. Perhaps her relationship with Iris has blurred the boundaries of what constitutes platonic friendship.
This book is at once the analysis of a multi-layered friendship, the confessions of a confused adolescent, and the story of a gut-wrenching leap into the unknown. It rings true on so many levels, and women especially will relate very personally to this intimate story of the painful transition from girlhood to womanhood.
Modernista, 2017. 152 pages.