The woods may be lovely, dark and deep, but in Matthew Hooton's Deloume Road, the woods are also luminous, melancholy and vicious.
Four pre-teen boys - two brothers, one friend and a misfit shunned by the first three - anchor the story set on forested southern Vancouver Island over a few days in what is supposed to be the early 1990s. But there is an otherworldliness to the story that could place it in any decade that includes boys riding bikes with skidding flourishes and adults with their own silencing troubles.
Violence nips at every character. A native neighbour and Korean War veteran worries about his son, who has gone missing piloting in the North. A pregnant immigrant and soldier's fresh widow contemplates whether to stay in a land where ravens fly by, "their wings beating out a sound like wind through cracked mortar."
Matthew is the one three other boys revolve around, the one who knows what to do in every situation. Resentful of his "retarded" brother, Matthew is also fiercely protective of Andy. Matthew's friend, Josh, is in trepidation of his buddy's dark reasoning.
"'You'd never shoot anybody though,' he said.
"'Yeah I would,' said Matthew, kicking a rock into the ditch. 'Naw, not for real. But maybe if they tried to hurt Andy.'
"'But you'd go to jail.'
"'Yeah, but they wouldn't hurt Andy.'"
Matthew's compassion doesn't extend to Miles, the lost neighbour boy avoiding an abusive father. Sleeping in the shed that a local butcher has sympathetically left open, with a blanket on the floor, Miles dangerously trails the boys, longing to be let in on their seemingly normal lives.
Hooton takes a lot of literary risks in this first novel. Points of view shift from first to third person, sometimes on the same page. Chapters are short, sometimes only a two-line sentence. Although the risk-taking is refreshing, it occasionally falters. Chapters that might have provided a tensile continuity sometimes read more like extended text messages or Twitter posts. Perhaps this is the shape of literature to come for a generation such as Hooton's, one not inclined to consumptive reading.
Hooton's gift is recreating a wilderness, "a place where the Lord's voice still echoed from His creation," which stupefied 19th-century surveyor Gerard Deloume, for whom the road is named. He's a character who haunts the forest that is both haven and hell for the four boys.
Deloume Road garnered Hooton a prestigious prize for best novel to emerge from the masters writing program at Bath Spa University, in England. For the fledgling novelist, who also graduated from the University of Victoria's writing program, it's a deserved honour. Not only for creating a magnificent boy antihero, but for artfully sustaining a tale of misplaced honour and a resulting sorrow as old as the woods.
Vivian Moreau is a Victoria journalist. She lived in the valley Hooton writes about for 10 years.