Book Review: “The Road to Winter” by Mark Smith (#LoveOzYA @marksmith0257 @ReadingsBooks)

 

Mark Smith’s The Road to Winter (Text Publishing, 2016) is one of six titles shortlisted for the inaugural Readings Young Adult Book Prize, which celebrates emerging voices in Australian youth literature. The book was also shortlisted for the Indie Book Award for Young Adult 2017, West Australian Young Readers’ Book Award 2017, and Western Australian Science Fiction Foundation’s Aurealis Award 2016.

The Road to Winter is an unusual post-apocalyptic novel, set in Victoria’s Surf Coast, at the edge of a future Australia whose population is mostly wiped out by a mysterious virus. The first-person narrator Finn, a teenager with a small speech impediment, has survived for two years on his own. His father died defending law and order, and his mother was killed by the virus.

Finn’s story is unusual because he is independent and resourceful, and very well stocked with supplies, thanks to his father’s foresight when the virus started spreading from the country’s north. Unlike Robert Neville in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954), Finn has no use of violence and is free from “adult” problems such as depression and alcoholism. Neither is he like Kitai Raige in After Earth (2013) who harbours a sense of guilt and is determined to prove himself. In fact, Finn finds peace in solitude, his emotions beginning to stir only after he comes out of isolation. To me, he is very much a human edition of the little robot in Wall-E (2008), who happily turns his life upside down after a chance encounter with something of his own kind.

An innocent youth, Finn further reminds me of Ann Burden in Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah (1974) – at least until the appearance of someone of the opposite sex. Ann strives to defend her way of life against the intruding male, so intent on being independent that she is willing to risk her life. In contrast, Finn acutely feels the need to look after the arriving female and fulfil her needs, to such an extent that he embarks on a dangerous journey alone to search for her lost kin.

Like the Mariner in Waterworld (1995), Finn as a classic antihero takes on many more responsibilities along the way. Except the world out there is more like that in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), a lawless land where violence rules and women are more valuable than gold. Here, again, Finn is an unusual antihero because he is just a teenager, with neither physical strength nor combat knowledge and skills to fend off the bad guys. Sometimes he is just a spectator, his eyes allowing us to observe the dark side of humanity at dire times. Imagine a lone teenage fighter in John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993) and there you have it.

Two more plot twists stand out. One is a subtle comment on a certain national issue in our present day, and the other reminds us that even the bad guys have human emotions. All in all, The Road to Winter is a graceful and thought-provoking read. I particularly like how Finn treats his loved ones as natural equals and without any bias. He is, after all, a teenager.

You can find more information about Mark Smith’s The Road to Winter here.

 

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