State Highway One
by Sam Coley
Hachette, $32.99 pb, 352 pp
In this absorbing first novel – which won the 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers – Sam Coley tells the story of Alex, a young Aucklander who returns home from abroad after the sudden death of his parents. Alex and his estranged twin sister, Amy, set off on a reluctant road trip through New Zealand to reconnect with each other and their home country.
Moving backwards and forwards in time, the novel shifts between the present-day road trip and Alex’s memories of his early life. Through these shifts, we discover a childhood filled with privilege but rife with emotional neglect. Left by their famous film-director parents to largely to raise themselves, the twins develop an uneasy relationship, one full of jealousy and tension. As the pair journeys together, their deeply flawed characters are revealed and longstanding wounds start to fester.
Amy, bossy and self-assured, has always been the dominant twin; she thrives on ordering others around. In contrast, Alex is deeply unsettled and easily bruised by his sister’s actions. Alex’s deep loathing for his family is clear from the beginning when, three years prior to his parents’ deaths, he hurriedly leaves New Zealand for an internship in Dubai, bitterly cutting off all contact with his parents and sister in the process. It is not until the end of the novel that the catalyst for this act becomes apparent, but Coley peppers the narrative with just enough hints to make State Highway One a suspenseful page-turner.
With each step in the long journey, Alex’s emotional and mental states start to unravel, and Amy begins to show a long-hidden tenderness towards her brother. Coley masterfully crafts Alex’s distress and reveals just enough history to make the narrative both believable and utterly compelling. The book is, at its heart, about repressed grief, trauma, and the ties that bind us.
Humorous, insightful, and ultimately affecting, State Highway One unpicks the uneasy nature of family and the difficulty of escaping your past.