Saturday, November 8, 2014

Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

Have you heard of the urban legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker? Normally a young woman, often in an evening gown, she hitches a ride with a passing motorist. Sometimes she borrows a coat or a scarf. Then she disappears. Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire is narrated by this legend. Driven off the road in 1952 while wearing her prom dress, Rose Marshall has been haunting the roads ever since.

“'Go toward the light,' they tell the dead, but in my experience, the light has always been an oncoming car,” says Rose (p. 108).

This book was not what I expected. Although it’s a ghost story, it can’t be classified as horror or even as scary. The narrative jumps around in time, from 1952 to the present, as Rose relates her encounters with various living and dead people (and some who are somewhere in between). We learn about her life, and her death, and what’s it like to be a ghost who is called home whenever a person who you cared about in life is ready to die.

We meet ghost hunters and an undead stretch of road, and we visit many diners, where Rose can enjoy a hamburger and a malt if given freely to her by someone living.

This is a story of the road, not just Sparrow Hill Road, where Rose died, but the entire network of roads across the U.S., and the ghost roads that lay underneath them. This book is a love letter to the roads, and to the drivers that navigate them, and to the diners that once gave them food and rest.

“Every inch of ground on this planet is a palimpsest, scraped clean and overwritten a million times, leaving behind just as many ghosts. That daylight America exists, alongside a thousand other Americas just like it, but the twilight Americas outnumber them a thousand-fold, and beneath them, the midnight Americas lurk, hungry and waiting.” (p. 41)

This is not a book of great action. Rose’s character is well drawn, and the author spends a lot of time on world building. Hitchers and routewitches, gather-grims and bean sidhe. Some of these are real legends and some were created by the author, but I didn’t really care which as I read this fascinating book. McGuire’s ghostroad underworld felt like a real place, and Rose like a real person (although a dead one).

Sparrow Hill Road gets a little draggy in the middle and turns a bit far-fetched as Rose reunites with her long-lost love in automobile form, but the narrative constantly went in directions I did not expect. I recommend this unusual novel to any reader who likes something a little out of the ordinary and is willing to be pulled along into the fantastical.

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