The Rhythm of the Road
by Albyn Leah Hall
Published by Thomas Dunne Books
320 pages, 2007
Buy it online
The Beat Goes On
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
When it comes to bringing up children, love is never enough. Jo is proof of that. Her father, Bobby, wanted her desperately and was happy to have sole care of the premature baby who wasn't expected to survive.
Jo's absent mother, Rosalie, never gave up alcohol or drugs when she was pregnant. Although she and Bobby married once she discovered she was "knocked up," the young American art student was not cut out for maternity.
An SOS sent home brought Rosalie's wealthy parents out from New York, and before Bobby and baby could blink, the trio had flown away, escaping London without ever seeing the baby or the father. He seemed to get over the callous desertion, however, in the euphoria of discovering his daughter was going to pull through. A musician with a small, unsuccessful band, he exchanged his bass guitar for a truck (or -- pardon me -- lorry) and became a driver. It was one way that he could make a living and keep his new family with him. Jo grows up with the rhythm of the English road in her blood, her world the front seat of daddy's rig, with country music spilling from the dash and greasy junk food sustaining them both. This gypsy lifestyle is interrupted with rare stints in London, staying at their tiny, fly-speckled flat, where Jo attends an inner city school occasionally. There's no home schooling taking up the slack; how does she learn to read and write?
This unlikely upbringing is a life they both love and the only life the young girl knows. She has no idea how unnatural it is. It's not a very balanced or healthy life. It's bad for her physically, makes for an unnatural relationship between father and daughter -- the pair are more like siblings and later like mother/son -- and restricts her emotional and social development. From a very early age, Jo has had to watch out for Bobby. When he goes "dark," he needs her help to get through each day. His serious bouts of depression become a fact of life for her; she's even used to driving the truck on those days, even though she's underage.
But now things are changing. The baby is becoming a woman. Her lack of respect for her father is creating problems, and in the absence of discipline, Jo discovers her power over men and her love of alcohol. Bobby now catches glimpses of Rosalie in his growing daughter, and also begins to see that he has no more control over Jo than he had over his departed wife. He slips into a serious decline. On a fateful ferry trip to Ireland, Bobby loses it and Jo is enjoying the attention she is getting too much to worry about him. He slips over the side of the ship and Jo has to come to terms with his death and her responsibility in it. But she's only 16 with no life experience: her whole world has been country music and the road. She's not prepared for life on any level.
Desperately looking for a surrogate, she seeks out and eventually stalks Cosima, an increasingly successful western singer she and her father once gave a ride to. Ultimately, she even follows her and the band to America, where she slips into serious drinking and hard drugs, and winds up traveling with a career criminal who likes young girls and playing with guns before he has sex. This teenager is every bit as suicidal as her father and as alcoholic as her mother. And she has no one in the world. She can't possibly survive.
This is the second novel by the American born author who now lives in London. She writes convincingly of both worlds and the pull between them because she's been there. Her psychotherapist training also lends her credibility and her portraits of Jo, Bobby and the people who populate their world, although largely bleak, never feels strained. Even Jo's increasingly frightening obsession with Cosima and company measures up.
It's the plotting where Rhythm of the Road doesn't work so well for me. Initially too many coincidences where daughter and father run into Cosima and the Goodtime Guys, even at one point rescuing them. The inevitable reunion of mother and daughter, which the story has been building toward, feels crammed in quickly at the end of the book, as if the author thought: I've got to finish this fast. The resulting positive reversal in Jo happens just as quickly. Much of the novel deals with her descent into near oblivion; her ascent toward redemption just can't happen with such lightening speed.
Perhaps this novel should end a little earlier, with Jo at her lowest point. I know it's bleak, but you can't rush those final scenes. Besides, the book is intriguing, and well written enough that I'd certainly come back for seconds. | April 2007
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.