TL;DR – After a car accident causes the death of his parents, Alex returns home to New Zealand and embarks on a road trip with his twin sister, Amy, to seek reconciliation and ultimately redemption.
Alex and Amy’s parents are not exactly nurturing. Absorbed in their own careers, they often leave their children to fend for themselves, giving them a freedom that their friends are envious of but they view as empty and unloving. Alex hangs around for as long as he can stand; he has a passion for music and a good friend who keeps him company when his parents are not around. His twin sister, trying to be more positive, seizes her freedom to do what she wants and holds parties while their parents are away.
In the end, an incident occurs that has nothing to do with their parents, which drives Alex to pack his bags and move overseas to Dubai (as far away as possible from his home country, New Zealand). Three years later, he finds himself rushing home after receiving the news that his parents have died in a car crash. He’s in a daze, filled with regrets, haunting memories and attends a funeral that is mainly a blur. He can’t face returning home and having to deal with all the stuff left behind, so his sister convinces him to hop in the car and they go on a road trip along State Highway One, starting from the north of New Zealand going all the way down to the south.
Sam Coley’s debut novel is a well-deserved winner of the 2017 Mitchell Prize for Emerging Writers. It’s a sweeping tale that showcases the beauty of New Zealand and the fragility of life through the strained connection between Alex and Amy and their estranged relationship with their parents. Coley captures the guilt and angst of Alex through every thought, speech and action he has with his sister and does so with words that make you feel like you’re in the car with them, watching them smoke, drink, argue over the music playlist, and the glimpses of need amongst all the anger and reckless driving.
The story moves between past and present as the puzzle pieces of Alex’s life comes together to burn deep in the reader’s mind. State Highway One was recommended to me because I enjoyed The Wife and Widow by Christian White. As a result, I confess I was keeping an eye out for a specific device that Coley uses in his story. When I identified it, the story seemed to drag a bit, and I felt a desire to jump to the end because I knew the reveal.
As with most creative works, especially stories, it is best to go in without any preconceived ideas. You’ll enjoy it all the more I promise you. Instead, I found the repeated desire of Alex to stop the road trip because his sister was driving him nuts and wanting to buy a ticket back to Dubai wears thin after about the halfway mark. Each time he contemplates this action, Amy reminds him that he promised to take her all the way south, to the end of State Highway One. The signs are there if you know where to look and once you do, you’ll know where it is all heading.
Still, it’s a poignant tale, if a little long-winded for me. A journey of self-discovery through all the stages of grief and self-destruction amongst the amazing scenery of New Zealand before finally reaching a destination that is so insignificant in time and place to anyone else, but means everything to Alex as he keeps his promise to his sister.
3 out of 5.