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Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell - Book Review


Back Roads
Tawni O'Dell
Black Swan

Fiction-Net Rating 4 Star Rated Book

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Cover Story

One day, Harley Altmyer was eighteen and thinking about making some kind of life. He had a family he loved and he figured it was time to get a job. Before he has the chance, his life is a minefield. His father is dead, his mother is in prison for murder, three younger sisters to care for and there's not too much time left over for himself. Suddenly, he has two crummy jobs, a fantasy sex life, big worries about the kids and a court-appointed therapist.

An intense physical relationship with a woman living down the road seems to offer a way out, the answer to his problems. But little can he realise that those problems are only just beginning.

We Say

Back Roads, according to the sleeve, was a New York Times Bestseller, chosen to be part of Oprah Winfrey's 'Book Club Selection' and has a list of accolades from US newspaper reviews as long as your arm. So this novel just has to be a page turner? Well, yes and no.

The pages of Back Roads do turn easily. It's written extremely well, it has a powerful storyline and it has engaging characters but it is so desolate and depressing. I hoped that things would start getting better for the family that Tawni O'Dell writes about but it never did. I could imagine them on Oprah, recounting their awful tale and the audience shaking their heads in disgust that such terrible things had been allowed to happen. Am I a cynic? Probably, but no matter how awful the story got I kept thinking something good might still happen to them. Unfortunately, Tawni O'Dell doesn't go for the easy option of the happy ending and I just wish she had. It would have made wading through all the bleakness seem worthwhile.

Our narrator is Harley, at eighteen years old the eldest child of the family. He talks to the reader about himself, his mother, his father and three sisters. As the story begins, we learn that Harley's mother apparently shoots his father because of the physical abuse he doles out daily to the four children. His mother is jailed for the crime and Harley has to take on the arduous task of looking after himself and three sisters with very little help from anyone. Here we discover what Harley feels as he visits his mother for the first time in prison.

"She lightly kissed the top of Jody's head again and then gently grazed her cheek across it. This was the gravy part of motherhood. She still got it even though she no longer had to deal with the bad stuff. The fights. The bills. The spills. The nightmares. The questions. The future. She still had us kids but we didn't have her."

Harley's style has its moments of humour but they are black. The only light relief for me was provided by the youngest member of the Altmyer family, Jody. She seems, not surprisingly with what is directed at the rest of the kids, the only one that has some form of handle on rationality. She delights with her lists of things to do. She keeps all of the fortune cookie sayings, believing Confucius writes them and that they are wise words telling her what to do. Her speech is extremely believable as the dialogue of a four year old.

Mostly, Tawni O'Dell's writing convinces that she is in the mind of an eighteen year old male having to deal with the tribulations of parenthood while he is still not an adult himself. We are taken on a difficult journey with Harley as he grows from boy to manhood. We read about his first emotional and sexual experiences with an older woman whilst trying to hold down two mundane low-paid jobs and keep appointments with Betty, his psychiatrist - who has her 'real office' someplace else. During all this, Harley tries to look after his three younger traumatised sisters whilst attempting to cope with his own confused thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, these moments of soliloquy from Harley shock with the violent nature of the ideals he has grown up with.

Occasionally, we remember the author is female, perhaps with bitter experiences at the hands of males and Harley is her fictional character. "It didn't matter if I loved her. From what I had seen of marriage, the woman had to love the man but the man only had to love what the woman did for him."

I can't actually say I liked Back Roads at all but I think I still respected it in the morning. It is possible I found it is so disheartening because it is a tale that could be so very real for some.

Review by: Susan Miller

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