A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better by Benjamin Wood

This is a compelling and claustrophobic story about a young boy witnessing his father’s slide into psychosis, paranoia and violence on a road trip across northern England. Daniel Hardesty is the only son of estranged and arguing parents and, at the start of the novel, is taken, allegedly, to visit the TV studios where Francis Hardesty, his father, works. His mother is anxious about the trip and, ultimately, with good reason as things go from bad to worse for the father and his mental condition deteriorates. The ending is violent and the impact on Daniel is permanent.

Daniel is the book’s narrator. This works well in terms of the reporting of his parents’ rocky relationship and his enthusiasm for the visit to the TV studios. He has become a fan of the TV programme which his father works on and that story links occasionally into the narrative. As the road trip falls apart, Francis meets a woman in a bar and his behaviour underlines how frail his personality is. At one level, he wants to do the best for his son but events, and the darker side of his personality, conspire against him. He wants to sort out what he sees as an injustice perpetrated on him but he is endlessly frustrated and finally snaps. Two people from his past, Chloe and QC are drawn into his narratives and, finally, join the tragic journey. The way that the son perceives and describes these characters and this descent into madness, as well as revealing the complexity of the character and the increasing tension, is highly effective at the start but possibly loses its way in the violent climax. That is the trade-off for the immediacy of the boy’s perceptions elsewhere.

It is interesting how the boy perceives his mother as saintly, even glossing over some of the detail in her teenage diaries, and that seems to be his continuing view when he looks back on the events that consumed his family. I liked this because the reader is quite likely to think that she could have done things differently and been more helpful in her marriage in terms of sorting it out, or simply leaving, but that might be just me. Anyway, there’s an interesting question there.

I’m not sure about the TV series, a science fiction series called The Artifex featuring an alien, probably female, called Cryck who is attempting to find bits of equipment which will enable her to return to the planet Aoxi. In the programme, she befriends a young boy, evidently similar in age to Daniel. That is a connection: she is also calm and competent, unlike either parent, and she wants to escape. She is played in the programme by an actress called Maxine Laidlaw who Daniel obviously has a slight crush on. After the tragic ending to the novel, this programme remains an important influence on his life.

This last section of the novel is more problematic. Daniel grows up reflects and looks back, escapes to America, marries, doesn’t really escape what happened, tries to find out more and so on, but doesn’t come to any kind of significant closure which makes the ending of the book uneasy. Maybe his biggest worry is that he will become just like his dad!

I liked this book. It is a horrifying road trip across a small, enclosed and suffocating map, from Buckinghamshire to the Pennines, then cascading to an inevitable and violent ending near Leeds. There’s something very British about it in the geography, and in the way that no one sorts out the problems on the way there!

(This book is to be published in June 2018. I received a review copy via NetGalley from the publishers, Scribner an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)

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