There is a young lad called Andagin, hunting in a forest, capturing a squirrel, praying over its corpse; and a Roman soldier, Marcus Severus, stood upon ramparts, thinking about his life, the land he has invaded, the locals. There is a young woman called Robbie, whose parents are getting divorced (whose father is falling apart, in some ways, becoming neurotic on particular topics such as climate change); and a former solder called Aitch, struggling with life having returned from conflict in Afghanistan. Finally there is a group of children, Malk Aban Efia Nathin Becca Rona Lan, former slaves fleeing capture.
These three sets of characters inhabit alternative chapters in Gregory Norminton’s fifth book, The Devil’s Highway. Although we are told (on the flyleaf of the hardback) that three thousand years separate the first story from the last, the best way to view them is possibly: past (Andagin, Marcus Severus), present (Robbie, Aitch) and future (Malk Aban Efia Nathin Becca Rona Lan). Certain reviews of The Devil’s Highway have referred to the future element as sci-fi but it isn’t really, it’s more a reflection of the distant past we see in the opening chapters (increasingly dystopias see us stripped of all technology, reverting to nomadic tribal wandering as the best possible outcome, survival of the fittest).
In terms of the stories themselves, in the past we see a kind of Druidic radicalism resulting in an act of subversion that would today be called terrorism, in the present we see the troubled effects of mental health refracted through war and activism and in the future we see a group of what are essentially feral children attempting to carve a life for themselves in the midst of various internal wrangles and external mayhem. The link that combines the story is the geography – all of these stories happen, ostensibly, in the same place, albeit at different times: the eponymous Devil’s Highway which exists in Berkshire. This gives Norminton the power to reach out to us as readers and occasionally wink about the game he is playing. Here’s Robbie, for example:
“Yesterday, Robbie thinks, the hill was as it was today, and the day before, and hundreds of days before that. But if the world were like a film and you could rewind it, it would be possible to make many places out of one place.”
Later, in the futuristic element of the book, Malk says,
“One place is lots of places if you wait long enuf. Aint no good place nor bad place. We just flies on em.”
The construction of The Devil’s Highway is interesting, and the slight echoes (as shown above) create a sense of both friction and frisson. The ancient act of terrorism makes for a lively resonance with the times in which we find ourselves and the hybridised language used in the future sections recalls Russell Hoban’s exquisite Riddley Walker (and anything that reminds you of Riddley Walker, a book that should be far more highly regarded than it is, is a good thing), and places the book in a tradition that incorporates Pilgerman and The Book of Dave and, more recently, The Country of Ice Cream Star. As with any book that attempts to forge a new language, it requires the reader to help shoulder some of the weight when it comes to world building, which is no bad thing, but places a level of demand that might not be for everyone.
Any Cop?: This feels like a solid attempt to wrestle with big topics and you come away feeling like you’ve given your brain a good workout, even though the book only runs to just over 200 pages. Having not read Norminton before, this has whet our appetite for whatever he does next.