Written by Sarah Lotz — – South African thriller writer Lotz begins this book deep underground in Wales and finishes it on the freezing peak of Mount Everest, in Nepal. In between is a psychological thriller that teaches a cautionary lesson or two about the Internet, extreme pursuits and vanity.
Simon Newman is prepared to tell people whatever he thinks they need to hear in order to get their help. That means lying about being a documentary film maker or skilled amateur climber, when in reality he’s a barista in a coffee shop, a failed climber who hasn’t psychologically recovered from a fall a few years back, and one half of a voyeuristic website called Journey to the Dark Side. He doesn’t see himself as a bad guy and rationalises away his deceptions as necessary evils, seemingly oblivious to the fact that lies and manipulation have become a way of life. In other words he’s a classic noir antihero who destined for a fall, and while you know it all along as you read The White Road, it doesn’t spoil this psychological thriller. In fact, it adds to the fun.
Simon’s trawl through online caving forums looking for someone to take him into the closed off Cwm Pot caving system in Wales has led him to Ed. Cwm Pot was the scene of a notorious disaster when a team of cavers got trapped underground during a flash flood. Caving legend has it that the bodies were never recovered, and filming this ghoulish scene would mean Simon’s website can the ground running with some viral content. Cocksure of his own abilities, Simon doesn’t stop to consider whether he’s up to this, or just why Ed is the only one prepared to take him there, until it’s too late.
It’s easy for things to go wrong deep underground, especially when your guide is a paranoid conspiracy nut whose history of violence has seen him shunned by the caving community. The first few chapters are a white knuckle ride of claustrophobia as the full extent of Simon’s predicament is gradually revealed. Lotz has written thrillers and urban horror before, and she knows how to twist the knife; these opening 70 or so pages are amongst the most tense I have read.
Simon escapes with life and limb intact, but Ed is not so lucky. The film does indeed make the website a hit, but Simon’s peace of mind has been shattered. Unable to ground himself back into mundane, normal life, and goaded by the visitors to Journey to the Dark Side, Simon convinces himself salvation and greater fame lie in once again putting his life on the line. The slopes of Everest conceal the corpses of failed climbers, and a successful summiting will provide plenty of grisly footage for the site and kind of challenge that will make him feel alive once gain.
The rest of the book records Simon’s ascent interspersed with journal entries from Juliet Michaels, who in the 1990s was attempting to be the first woman to climb Everest without the aid of ropes or oxygen. At such high altitudes, climbers can succumb to pulmonary and cerebral oedema – fluid on the brain – and, coupled with the freezing cold and exhaustion, strange experiences are not uncommon. Juliet’s climbing partner, Walter, died on a failed attempt the previous year, and as the summit approaches Juliet is haunted by what she describes as a third man who walks beside her. This, and the book’s title are a reference to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Juliet is unsure if this apparition is well-intentioned or malevolent.
When, in the present day, Simon discovers one of the members of his climbing party has come to pay his respects to Juliet, Simon’s decision to either help this young man or betray his trust and exploit the situation for his website, might just determine his own fate.
Lotz cleverly keeps the nature of Juliet’s and Simon’s visions obscure. They could be ghosts, if you choose to see them that way, or signs of mental collapse in people under states of extreme physical stress and exhaustion. Whichever your preference, they act as metaphors for guilt and grief, and gives this efficient thriller added depth. It can be wearisome to spend a novel in the mind of such an unlikeable character, and there were times when I would have welcomed another narrative perspective, but there’s no denying The White Road is a roller-coaster ride with intriguing psychological depth.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars