Fear, hope and uncertainty

This is my review of Northline by Willy Vlautin.

Allison has missed out on her education, has low self-esteem and uses alcohol as an escape. When she is drunk, bad things happen to her, although her tragedy is limited by her ability to get paid work easily and to display a surprising competence when sober. In her imaginary conversations with the actor Paul Newman which never fail to draw her out of the darkest despair, he is always the voice of her revived reason and commonsense.

At first, I was predisposed to dislike a book which I expected to be a lightweight reworking of the well-worn theme of losers and drifters with "their hearts in the right place". In fact, the simple prose conveys a vivid sense of the life of ordinary people trying to make a living in cities like Las Vegas or Reno. In their resilience and acts of unexpected kindness to each other, they arouse sympathy and respect. Even Allison's abusive lover Jimmy has redeeming features – his thirst for knowledge, even if it leads to bigoted opinions, or his desire to make a fresh start in a state like Montana beyond a "northline".

Vlautin's measured development of a succession of personalities and gradual release of details is quite skilful. A short work, you could call it an example of "less is more". I also like the way that, at the end of a carefully constructed book, Vlautin avoids sentimentality by leaving certain points unresolved, rather like life.

Although the inclusion of a CD of the author's music designed to reflect the feel of the book seems at first a little self-indulgent and gimmicky, it proves slow, rhythmic, rather melancholy. Quite pleasant to listen to, it lacks the darker, more violent moments of the story, and seems to cover less varied emotions than the book itself.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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