Monday, 6 February 2017

Book Review: THE WHITE ROAD by Sarah Lotz

The White Road by Sarah Lotz

Author: Sarah Lotz
Hachette Australia
February 2017
Expected publication: 17 May 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Death waits at the top of the world in this adrenaline-laced thriller from Sarah Lotz, perfect for anyone who loves the film The Descent or John Krakauer's book Into Thin Air.

Adrenaline-junky Simon Newman sneaks onto private land to explore a dangerous cave in Wales with a strange man he's met online. But Simon gets more than he bargained for when the expedition goes horribly wrong. Simon emerges, the only survivor, after a rainstorm trap the two in the cave. Simon thinks he's had a lucky escape.

But his video of his near-death experience has just gone viral.

Suddenly Simon finds himself more famous than he could ever have imagined. Now he's faced with an impossible task: he's got to defy death once again, and film the entire thing. The whole world will be watching. There's only on place on earth for him to pit himself against the elements: Mt Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

But Everest is also one of the deadliest spots on the planet. Two hundred and eighty people have died trying to reach its peak.

And Simon's luck is about to run out.

My thoughts:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you?

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and other poems

The third man factor, first described by Sir Ernest Shackleton on his gruelling trek across the frozen white road of South Carolina Island, refers to the presence of a spirit-being providing comfort in situations of extreme danger and distress, when people have reached the absolute limits of their endurance. What, however, if this being was not benevolent, but outright evil? What, if instead of lending strength and help in guiding its chosen human companion to safety, this spirit-being was out to lure him to his death?

Simon Newman has such an experience after hiring a stranger to guide him on an ill-fated caving expedition into the maze of Cwm Pot in Wales to capture footage for a website he and his friend Thierry are trying to get off the ground. Trapped by rising floodwaters in an underground cavern with the corpses of three other cavers who perished 20 years ago in similar circumstances, Simon's crazed companion Ed also succumbs to the cold and dies, leaving Simon to fend for himself. Despite making a miraculous escape out of this underground death trap, Simon feels Ed's presence in his nightmares and in stressful situations for years to come. When embarking on another extreme adventure to get footage for his website, the ascent of Mount Everest, Simon is surprised to read about the third man phenomenon in the journal of a climber who died a few years ago on the icy mountain. Maybe he is not crazy after all? Juliet Michaels clearly describes the presence of an evil spectre following her on her gruelling ascent and even visiting her in her tent one night. Exposed to extreme conditions on the mountain, the spectre of Ed is also back, creating a menacing presence Simon finds impossible to shake off. What will it take to lay Ed's spirit to rest and finally get his life back in order?

I loved the premise of the book, and Lotz instantly drew me in with this simple line: 
“I met the man who would save my life twice –and ultimately destroy it–on a potholed road in the arse-end of the Welsh countryside.”

The theme of the book, the third man phenomenon, has its roots in many real-life accounts of people who have survived impossible tests of human endurance, and caters to our fascination with the otherworldly. What could be more terrifying than an evil spectre haunting you when you're already down? Is it a mere figment of the hypoxic brain or a harbinger of death and doom? Both Simon's and Juliet's caving and mountaineering expeditions make for a fascinating read, and reminded me of two books I read and loved last year: ThinAir by Michelle Paver and The Dead House by Harry Bingham. Lotz clearly knows how create atmosphere and I was duly chilled by her claustrophobic descriptions of the dark and dank caves of Cwm Pot and the harsh icy landscape of Mount Everest. Whilst Simon’s caving expedition is downright scary, Juliet’s journal had me equally spellbound with the description of the white and hostile mountain, when she first suspects that an evil presence is following her on her climb. Creepy! For extra excitement, read this book at night with the wind howling outside! I was a bit disappointed that Simon's experience with the third man phenomenon on the mountain ended so abruptly, as it had so much more potential to chill and thrill. I was just settling into my goosebumps and burrowing into the safety of my doona, when the best bit was already over. The second part of the book lost a bit of momentum for me after that, although I thought the ending fitting, coming full circle in what was a tricky subject matter.

With its creepy and claustrophobic scenes based on true accounts of people who have survived impossibly harsh ordeals, The White Road should appeal to readers looking for an action-packed read with a touch of the mysterious and supernatural, without having to suspend disbelief. All characters are deeply flawed, which for me added authenticity, considering the motives driving the main protagonists to undertake such extreme adventures. Lotz has clearly done her research and gives a credible if chilling account of her characters’ exploits and encounters with either the spirit world or the dark side f their own psyche – judge for yourself. It certainly raised my goosebumps without pushing it too far across the line into the realm of unbelievable. A taut and tense read, consider taking it on your next camping trip for that bit of extra chill! It will haunt your deepest and darkest nightmares as you listen out for that tap-tapping of bony fingers on your tent’s canvas ....

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

You may also enjoy:

The Dead House (Fiona Griffiths, #5) The Dead House, by Harry Bingham, which contains a terrifying and claustrophobic caving scene set in a network of Welsh caves. 

Thin Air Thin Air, by Michelle Paver, which contains another account of the "third man factor" experience during a mountaineering expedition.

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