What if, even when simply trying to exist in the world and doing some private healing, you were - and could never be - safe? That is the question Kathryn Hind asks in her subtly powerful novel Hitch.
The main character, Amelia, is a "20-something" woman who is hitch-hiking from Alice Springs to Melbourne - she is giving herself time and space to consider the death of her mother, as well as an appalling event from her childhood.
Rather than destroy herself through drug abuse or bad relationships, Amelia wants to move from one stretch of road to the next, as if each step - and breath - she takes she will get her closer to a state of peace. Her only real company is a loyal (and extraordinarily obedient) dog called Lucy, who trots along like a shadow.
As is the way with this precarious form of travel, especially in Australia where there are such wide open spaces in which all types of people drift and lurk, the strangers who give Amelia a lift are, on the whole, unpleasant, if not worse.
Indeed, the first person who gives her a ride is a young tradie: rough, assuming, and predatory - the interaction goes from bad to very near disastrous. It is a highly unsettling start to the novel, though Amelia, a trusting, nave but resourceful person, continues on her journey regardless, even when she knows it would be best to stop - for her, giving in does not appear to be an option:
She crouched, cupped Lucy's head in her hands. "We've got this." Lucy's dark eyes were a balm; she wagged her tail, her rump swinging from side to side. As Amelia left the cover of the building, she composed herself: long, steady strides, lifted chin. Confidence is key, her mother would have said. Shoulders back.
Amelia goes on to meet a rather odd middle-aged couple, who seem to be toying with her, a more sympathetic mother and daughter, a young girl in whom she briefly finds a kindred spirit (and an unbroken echo of her own childhood self), an older man called Pops who promises refuge but fails to deliver, and an appropriately ramshackle rock band.
In this contemporary Australia, most of the men are, rather justifiably, vile: untrustworthy, self-obsessed, and treat women as playthings. Meanwhile, despite every so often being reminded of her past traumas, Amelia keeps notching up the kilometres.
A refreshingly sweet pulse in the novel is her childhood friend Sid, whom she is hoping to meet in Melbourne. The friendship between these two is beautifully drawn and filled with moments of warmth and intimacy, even when Amelia is doing nothing more than writing Sid a postcard, which she does in a code that only these best of friends can understand.
Having not planned what she would write, she carefully shaped the characters of their code: Remember that day we tried to get lost in the gully? We both pretended we didn't know the way home and then we started to believe it.
Providing a necessary contrast to the wild public spaces of the desert, Amelia and Sid are clearly safe with each other, even though it is through their friendship that Amelia was damaged when only a child. But will their reunion happen, especially when the people Amelia meets are likely to lead her into more tricky terrain?
If this is starting to sound grim, there are many moments of compassion, some surprising. Nearing the city, Amelia needs to visit a chemist due to having her period. She has no money so has to be creative with how she secures what she needs.
When she looked up, the chip-packing boy was watching her from the end of the aisle, eyes wide. With a new cardboard box of chips in his arms, he returned to his station, her partner in crime.
While not wanting to reveal the narrative's conclusion, the final pages are filled with many well-crafted moments of genuine affection, and the reader is left with a sense of hope for Amelia - she has more travelling ahead, certainly emotionally but perhaps also physically, and more healing too, even if she will have to continue navigating her way with care.
Hind has written a fine novel about trust and betrayal, about how women - young, single women in particular - are almost always unsafe, treated as property by men for whom the term "unreconstructed male" remains unintelligible.
Like her protagonist, Hind has taken risks: the work comprises a single long chapter, the various episodes happen with minimal self-reflection, and she protects Amelia from the worst events that lesser skilled novelists would have put her through for nothing more than dramatic effect.
While some readers may wish to shy away from another Australian road-trip narrative, Hitch is a thoughtful and formidable novel.
Attentive readers will appreciate - and be moved by - the great care with which Hind has put her sentences down on the page. There is artistry here, and at least one courageous soul.
- Hitch, by Kathryn Hind. Penguin. $32.99
- Nigel Featherstone is the author of Bodies of Men, a novel.