“Yet again Keith Rosson’s demonstrated his remarkable capacity for writing a story which makes the weird, the wonderful, the fantastic and the slightly crazy feel not only believable but also remarkably relevant to the world in which we live.”
Brian Schutt, plagued by chronic headaches since his teenage years, is a 30-year-old anthropology student, still working on his PhD. Having eventually reached the conclusion that academia is not for him, he’s decided to drop out of the doctoral programme but isn’t sure what he’s going to do next. Then his roommate forwards a link to a “help wanted” ad from Mark Sandoval, a cryptozoologist who is looking for a research assistant to accompany him on his latest investigation. Sandoval found fame as a result of writing a memoir about his experiences of being abducted by aliens, a book which was later adapted into an Oscar nominated film starring a young Brad Pitt. Sandoval has since devoted his life to exploring mythical creatures and cultural legends. When the arrival of grainy video footage of what appears to be a unicorn, from a woman who runs a pumpkin farm on Hvíldarland, a tiny, remote island off the coast of Iceland, coincides with his lawyer’s advice to leave the country following a potentially fatal drink-driving accident, he is eager to investigate.
Brian recognises that Sandoval is an alcoholic, has doubts about the accounts he gives of his background and, as a scientist, certainly doesn’t share his belief in monsters and mythical creatures. However, his own considerable experience as an anthropologist means that he’s confident about how to efficiently run a traditional dig so, with his own reasons for wanting to escape – problems with dysfunctional family relationships and a reluctance to face the seriousness of a recent medical diagnosis – he is prepared to put aside his doubts and accept the job.
I’d loved Keith’s first two novels, The Mercy of the Tide and Smoke City, both of which were 5* reads for me. Although I was eagerly anticipating reading Road Seven, I did find myself wondering if he could possibly engage and delight me as much with his third. However, after reading just the first few pages and immediately becoming immersed in the compelling nature of his story-telling, I felt totally confident that he could. Yet again he’s demonstrated his remarkable capacity for writing a story which makes the weird, the wonderful, the fantastic and the slightly crazy feel not only believable but also remarkably relevant to the world in which we live.
For very different reasons both Brian and Mark are using the expedition to Hvíldarland, to investigate the sighting of a unicorn, as a means to escape the messy reality of their real lives and to avoid taking responsibility, either for their actions or for what they need to do to put things right. Initially I felt so irritated with each of them, especially when they appeared unable to learn from their mistakes, that I found it almost impossible to feel any sympathy for either of them. Instead I was often left feeling exasperated by their moral cowardice and weakness, their aimless drifting. However, as the story progressed, and as the author gradually revealed their back-stories, I could begin to understand the background to their self-destructive behaviour and my tolerance and empathy increased. I’m sure that this ability to make me come to care about them comes down to the myriad ways in which Keith uses his brilliant insights into human behaviour, as well as his acute powers of observation, to create entirely credible and recognisable characters. It is an ever-present thread in his writing and is something I appreciate in his story-telling. In fact, each and every one of the characters in this story felt recognisable, something which added a rich dimension to the story.
When the two men arrive on Hvíldarland it soon becomes clear that their presence isn’t welcome and that, for reasons which are only gradually revealed, not only are they unlikely to get much help from local people, but they’re likely to meet violent opposition. Without giving away too much plot-spoiling detail, the developing story includes conspiracy theories, body parts, ghostly apparitions, a top-secret American military base hidden in the woods and Icelandic folklore, elements which make their search for the elusive unicorn a much more dangerous quest than they could ever have anticipated. As I found it almost impossible to predict the next twist or turn in the developing story, a very tangible “edge-of-the-seat” tension was added to my reading experience. Yet I felt happy to go on this roller-coaster of an adventure, confident that the author would guide me through safely, no matter how dark and dangerous it became!
However, there is lots of fun in this story too, with some wonderfully comic moments. Just one example is when the two men are forced to ride children’s bicycles in order to reach the pumpkin farm – you’ll have to read the book to discover why no other transport was available! The image of Sandoval, wearing his four-hundred-dollar jeans, riding a rainbow coloured one – “pedalling furiously with his elbows jutting straight out” – is one which remains vivid in my mind and is still having the power to make me smile as I write this review.
Although the there are elements of magical realism, science-fiction, horror, fantasy in this novel, Keith has used his vivid imagination and literary writing style to meld these into a genre-defying story. It’s a story which, at its heart, is about people – their fears and anxieties, how they negotiate life’s challenges, how they relate to others, what they believe in, the dreams they follow, their search for love and acceptance – in fact all those things which make us human.
Some of his metaphorical descriptions, his wonderful similes and his poetic phrasing were so powerful that there were many times when I just had to stop and re-read them, to marvel anew at their acuity. This ability to combine all these elements in such a smooth, coherent way is what makes Keith’s novels not only thought-provoking but also such a joy to read. Reaching the end of each of his books I’ve felt a strong sense that, whilst not blind to people’s foibles and shortcomings, nor to all that’s wrong in our world, he retains a sense of optimism that we’re all capable of achieving better things – and of finding the magic that surrounds us if we’re prepared to open our hearts and minds to it. Once I started Road Seven I found it so captivating that I could hardly bear to put it down so, if you haven’t read it, I hope my enthusiasm will encourage you to do so soon!
Before finishing I need to say how much I love the striking cover of this book. In addition to his skills as a writer, Keith is a talented illustrator and the graphics, as on all his covers, are his. I was immediately attracted by the design but it wasn’t until I’d finished reading the book that I realised just how many nods to the content of the story are incorporated into it – delightful!
With many thanks to Tricia at Meerkat Press for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for my reflections … and to Keith for yet another gem.
Individual Read: 5*
Group Read: 5*
Meerkat Press, Paperback (14th July 2020)