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Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell
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's review
Aug 26, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: american-fiction, fiction, adolescence
Recommended for: readers who enjoy an adolescent viewpoint, dysfunctional families, literary novels
Read in April, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

My eldest sister recommended this to me, and I was grabbed by her reference to The Catcher in the Rye, as she felt that Harley Altmyer, the 19-year-old who narrates the story in Back Roads, reminded her a lot of 17-year-old Holden Caulfield's in Salinger's novel. Having now read Back Roads, I could understand why she, and others, have made this connection: after all, both characters share a sense of being cut-off, feeling awkward, self-conscious and isolated; both feel frustration and a deep-felt pain, anger and anguish about their lives and circumstances; both are trapped and feel unable to escape; both, too, interestingly, tell their stories in the present tense, while in fact they are reflecting back on their lives from within the enclosure of an institution.

It is, without a doubt, an accomplished first novel: O'Dell has created, understood and convincingly portrayed the personality of a vulnerable, angry male adolescent in Harley (along with Amber, as a female psychological mirror to Harley's own pain and anguish). The themes are gritty, the family situation heartbreaking, the pace is gentle while the story is troubling and, if at times predictable, none the less the characters still remain with you long after closing the last page, so it is definitely worth reading. (And if you haven't read Salinger's novel, please, please do - it is a genuine modern classic of fiction that is beautifully written, sad and touching.)

But the qualitative difference between Back Roads and Catcher in the Rye, and the character Harley and Holden respectively, and generally in the novels themselves, is in the language the characters use to narrate, as well as, of course, the respective author's difference in the quality of their individual styles of writing. On this basis, it would be unfair in this regard to compare this, Tawni O'Dell's first novel, with J. D. Salinger's first, Catcher in the Rye, because the comparison sadly would mean failure for O'Dell. Stylistically Salinger's is without doubt far more accomplished; O'Dell, too, sometimes tries too hard with Harley's own use of language with certain uses of metaphors and similies that don't convince because they seem overly poetic and contrived set against the rest of his easy-going, natural voice; also, while Jody, the youngest (six years old) of one Harley's three sisters, is cute and charming, and does come across as a convincing child of that age, there are too many of what struck me as "cutsey" notes written by her with the always poor-spelling (the poor spelling, presumably, meaning to reinforce the reader's sense of her being so sweet, young and innocent, etc).

None the less, the two other sisters, Amber and Misty, are more compellingly drawn (probably because they are older and more troubled). On the plus side, too, structurally, O'Dell's novel is strong, and well-thought through, and just as good as Salinger's in this regard. And while one of the key plot outcomes - a trauma in the family separate from the murder, which I won't be explicit about in order not to spoil for new readers - struck me as predictable, the other major plotline, the actual circumstances of the killing of Harley's father, as it gradually built and became realised, was very well done.
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