State Highway One by Sam Coley

Reviewed by Rod McLary

It is always exciting to read the first published book of a new author.  Sam Coley is the author of this book describing a road trip undertaken by Alex and his twin sister Amy following the sudden death of their parents.  The circumstances which lead to the road trip and the events which occur during the trip provide the essence of the novel.

Alex Preston – almost twenty-one years old – has returned to New Zealand after walking out of the family home three years previously.  His – and Amy’s – parents were killed in a car accident and Alex has flown home from Dubai to attend their funeral and attempt a reconnection with his sister Amy.  To farewell their parents, they drive from Auckland to Cape Reinga [the northernmost point in New Zealand] where, as Maori legend has it, spirits of the dead travel to stop at the pohutukawa tree before the final part of their journey home.

Back in Auckland and unable to re-enter the house in which Amy and their parents lived, Alex at the urging of his sister decides to embark on a journey to the southernmost part of New Zealand – Stewart Island.  As Amy says ‘I want to go home and I want you to come with me’ [34].

This is no Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady road trip around America searching for God – Alex and Amy are searching for something much closer – a sense of home and a sense of belonging.

Even though both Alex and Amy take the road trip together, the novel is really about Alex and his rather tortured life as he struggles to find a new place in the world for himself and come some way towards acceptance of the death of his parents.  His abandonment of his home at age eighteen and travelling to Dubai to work for a music company led to an estrangement from his family with only rare phone or email contact.   But by leaving home, he also abandoned his best friend Henry whom Alex believed has betrayed him.

Isolated on the other side of the world, Alex creates a new life for himself but one which includes his being sexually exploited by his manager.  Ultimately, it is a hollow life and the tragic death of his parents and his consequent return home forces him to address his many unresolved issues.

While the book is set in February and March 2015 after Alex returns to Auckland, other chapters describe previous events in Alex’s life: January 2008 when he is about 14 years old, February 2010 when his parents are overseas on an extended trip, and March 2012 when he is betrayed by Henry.  The juxtaposition of the various time-frames provides a balance and counter-balance to the primary trajectory of Alex’s story.  The chapters set in the past add further depth to and a level of understanding of the critical events which led to his precipitate walking out the door.

The author has artfully captured the nature of conversations between siblings – the common history which doesn’t require explanation, the half-finished thoughts and sentences, the hurt and anguish associated with careless behaviour, and significantly, the misunderstandings which lead to consequences far more serious than either desired.  The following exchange beautifully demonstrates this:

Yeah well this whole trip was your idea, so –

It was your idea!

I shake my head.  So does Amy.

No, it was yours.

Which we never even would have had to go on, if you hadn’t –

If you hadn’t –

Right, like nothing is ever your fault, like nothing is ever your responsibility.

He was my friend, Amy.  [278]

And there in the final sentence, the real issue which led to Alex leaving home emerges – the attraction Henry had for Amy over and above his friendship with Alex.

The author has created an engaging character in Alex.  While his lack of maturity is evident in some of his responses to the challenges confronting him, Alex never loses the sympathy of the reader.  The contradictory elements in a boy on the cusp of adulthood are beautifully rendered; and his trajectory towards a cathartic event at the southernmost point of New Zealand is both consistent with what has occurred before and suggestive of a more rational future.

Sam Coley has produced a book about a young man where the characters and the events will stay with the reader well after the book is finished.  It is a very good book.

The author was the winner of the 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers which is open to unpublished writers of adult fiction.  He lives in New Zealand.

State Highway One

[2020]

by Sam Coley

Hachette

ISBN 978 1 86971 426 0

$32.99; 377pp

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