Matthew Hooton’s Deloume Road is the first of this year’s titles and, for a first novel, it comes with a bit of a reputation. Hooton grew up on Vancouver Island, where the novel is set, but headed off to Bath Spa University for an MA in Creative Writing — the draft of Deloume Road won the inaugural Greene and Heaton prize there for best novel.
The Deloume Road of the title is a dead-end track just north of the Malahat Pass on the interior of the island. A handful of houses and a single stop sign (with the O shot out — the kids amuse themselves by throwing rocks through it) are pretty much all there is to it. Hooton has chosen to tell his story by exploring several parallel tracks.
The first is set in the present with an unnamed narrator who has returned to Deloume Road. From the start, this thread comes with foreboding of past tragedy:
It’s easiest if you sit with me on the road. If you watch the breeze weave through the tops of the Scotch broom. If you ignore the dusty gravel and tar and instead focus on the tangle of wild blackberry vines at your feet. There’s only one berry on the vine and it’s covered with dust from the occasional passing car. In the distance a wookpecker rattles off Morse code.
The dominant narrative theme is set some years in the past and centres on two sub-teen youngsters, Matthew and Josh — with subthemes concerning Matthew’s younger brother, Andy, who is “retarded”. That’s a politically incorrect term but Hooton uses it and there is no way to avoid it. Matthew and Josh carry all the baggage of “friendship” at that age:
Some best friend. He was bigger and stronger than Matthew. He could have fought back but he didn’t want to. Not against Matthew. Or Andy. He wondered if he’d have to walk home without his bike later. He would if had to, but he was pretty sure they’d give it back soon. Matthew needed him. After all, his friend was awfully skinny.
That paragraph is representative of Hooton’s prose in the thread with the young boys — economical and to the point. He may get lyrical when it comes to the surroundings (see the previous excerpt) but he can move his story along.
Another thread concerns Irene, a South Korean who married a Korean Canadian soldier who has recently died in combat. She is pregnant, without a friend in the world and has a mother who wants her to return home. All of Deloume Road is isolated — for Irene (who would prefer to return to her real name of Sue Hwa), the isolation is even more profound.
Another thread concerns the Butcher, a Ukrainian imigrant who tends a pig farm with attached deli. He is trying to save money so that his wife and child can join him (they live near Chernobyl) but his isolation is every bit as profound as Irene/Sue Hwa’s.
Hooton also develops narrative themes around an artist, a dairy farmer, Matthew and Josh’s parents and the family that runs the local junkyard (who also have a son, Miles, but he is excluded from the friendship of the other boys).
And finally there is yet another stream concerning the original Deloume, a surveyor at the end of the nineteenth century when the area was little more than virgin forest and the man responsible for creating this “community”.
You have probably guessed that there is an “event” that ties some of these streams together. It is no spoiler to say there is, but I’ll provide no more indication than that (unless you demand it in comments).
Hooton deserves credit for ambition, if nothing more, in the structure he has chosen. He keeps the sections for each thread relatively short and moves with some ease from one to the other. Still, for this reader at least, eliminating a few of them would have been a wise editing decision — as the novel goes on the author spends more time story-juggling than he does story-telling.
I was reminded often while reading this book of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (reviewed here) another Canadian novel set in a similar kind of remote community, strung out on an otherwise deserted road. Alas, Deloume Road does suffer in the comparison — although it should be acknowledged that Watson’s novel is a classic in the Canadian canon.
Deloume Road is a worthwhile first novel, but not much more. Hooton does manage to keep his story together, but the complexity does wear. There is every reason to expect better in future work from this novelist — and every author does have to start somewhere.