Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Solace of the Road, by Siobhan Dowd

Solace of the Road
By Siobhan Dowd


I’m still traveling with the kids and the parents in Scotland and am following my goal of reading a number of books on the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize longlist. The one book I was most eager to read was Siobhan Dowd’s Solace of the Road. It was not easy to find up here in the Highlands, but I finally found one lone copy in Aviemore’s Waterstones. And, thank goodness, really. Solace of the Road is a book worth reading—for teens and for adults.

On the surface of things, Solace of the Road is a simple tale: Holly is a fifteen-year-old English foster child who decides to run for it and find her mother in Ireland. After years in a group home, she’s finally found placement with Fiona and Ray, a middle-aged couple whose comfortable lifestyle and quiet comportment rankles after the chaos of the group home. Holly questions whether or not Fiona and Ray even like her, or will the slightest infringement send her back to the home. In heading out on her own Holly convinces herself she is postponing the inevitable.

Solace of the Road becomes a road novel as soon as Holly takes a runner. She ‘borrows’ a blond wig from her foster mother and renames herself Solace, becoming an older, more sophisticated version of her 15-year-old self. She makes it all the way to Ireland—by bus and by hitching a ride with a number of strangers—before realizing her mother, in fact, would not be waiting for her on the other shore.

While runaway teens aren’t exactly a groundbreaking subject in Young Adult fiction, Solace of the Road is unique in its telling. Siobhan Dowd’s characterization nears perfection. Holly/Solace takes off with nearly forty pounds, but manages to blow it all on the first leg of her journey (Oxford), instead of squirreling it away carefully to last the entire trip. Holly’s judgments are split-second, instead of well considered and reasoned. When, for example, she finally decides to break her own moral code and shoplift, she nicks a pretty, floaty dress, instead of food. And, like most teens, her talent for denial serves her valiantly all the way to Ireland.

Solace of the Road distinguishes itself from standard teen fiction thematically, as well. While Holly meets one or two creeps on the road, most people who help her out do so out of human kindness—as would be the case in real life. This is not a dark teen novel, but rather one in which ordinary goodness shines through—to the reader and, in the end, to Holly as well. When back with Fiona and Ray at the novel’s conclusion, Holly realizes what she has experienced when talking with a therapist:

Other times I tell her [the therapist] about everyone I met on my travels. I show her the map and describe the good people on it who were like guardian angels because they did something to help me and asked for nothing back.

Chloe, who told me about Thule.
Kim, who gave me a sandwich.
The magnet man.
The boy on the motorbike, whose name I never knew, and Kirk, even, with his truckload
of pigs.
Sian, who said I had a figure like a dancer.

And Phil with his sad vegan eyes giving me the cake with pretend candles, and God is sitting in him still, I bet you, and he’s taking the scenic routes and chasing the white dividers in his cheese truck, planning his next move.

All these people—Phil the Vegan Truck Driver easily the best among them—help Holly on her journey, and only want the best for her, though they think she’s an eighteen-year-old off to elope with a sketchy boyfriend. Call me naïve, but I suspect this is what happens in the majority of similar situations, and level-headed realism instead of stylized darkness is refreshing to read in a teen novel. Enjoy this one on the road.

Solace of the Road
By Siobhan Dowd
U.K. edition
David Fickling Books
London, 2009
Copy Purchased


U.S. edition due October 13, 2009.

I have to admit I hate the cover. I am so tired of the back of teen girls’ heads. Can someone please put a stop to this? Please?