"Dead Roads" Book Review
Written by Lauren Jankowski
Written by Robin Riopelle
2013, 312 pages, Fiction
The novel Dead Roads by Robin Riopelle tells the story of Lutie, Sol, and Baz, three siblings from Louisiana. They have spent most of their lives separated after their mother took Lutie and ran off. All three have the ability to see beyond the spectral world and have frequent interactions with ghosts. Their father, Aurie, is a kind of exorcist (called a traiteur in the novel) who raised his eldest son, Sol, to follow in his footsteps. The title refers to the roads both Sol and his father are able to open up in order to send ghosts to the afterlife. When Aurie is killed while investigating strange killings along the railroad lines, the siblings must reunite in order to banish the ghost and devil responsible for their father's death.
Dead Roads is a very flawed novel, but perhaps its biggest problem is how incredibly boring the story is. There is no momentum, no real rising action, and what should be a twist is so poorly executed that when the reader comes to it, their most likely reaction will be, "Oh."
The opening focuses almost solely on Lutie and Baz. It's perhaps the only decently executed scene in the novel. Riopelle manages to create a decent atmosphere: two children playing in a graveyard, with a distinctly southern feel. Lutie wants Baz to sing so she can trap a ghost. Each of the Sarrazins has a slightly different ability: Sol can send ghosts into the afterlife, Lutie can trap them, and Baz's singing attracts all kinds of supernatural beings (ghosts, devils, and angels). The spookiness of the graveyard scene is beautifully done, though it stumbles a bit in the end when their mother comes and has to shoo all the ghosts away.
The first chapter switches to Sol and from then on Dead Roads becomes his story. It also highlights a huge problem in the story: Riopelle makes ghosts the monster of the tale. Now, here's the problem with murder ghosts in novels: they never work. A good ghost story is all about atmosphere. A ghost is not a threat in the same way as a human killer, werewolf, or vampire. Ghosts have no corporeal form and therefore have to be approached in a more cerebral manner. They are not visceral, but rather psychological. The ghosts in this story aren't written consistently either. There are three types of specters: ghosts (who can apparently toss a full-grown human male around a bit), devils (who I don't think can physically attack people), and angels (who are just light and who the devils want to attack or something). One of the major conflicts of the story involves a devil who apparently wants to kill the Sarrazins. He can't do it himself, but he does have a pet ghost who kills a number of people. For some reason, when facing off with one of the Sarrazins, the devil apparently forgets he has a pet ghost. That or he is just overconfident and very stupid.
Another issue in the novel is the characters themselves. They frequently become caricatures. Sol is the mopey eldest sibling who has to do everything his way. Baz is the rebellious middle sibling and you know he's a rebel because he has piercings. Lutie is the youngest and a girl, so of course she's the one who is thought to be crazy and needs to be on anti-psychotics. Seriously, can one horror story cast the woman as moderately competent, enough to know how to maybe keep a secret? Once they reunite, then you get the bickering. When they're not ultra-serious about the scary ghost and devil they're facing, they are whining about how awful life is or squabbling about something. It just gets tiresome.
The characters are also apparently incapable of common sense. For example, if I were going up against something I had never faced before, I'm not entirely sure what I would do to prepare. You know the one thing I probably wouldn't do? Get hammered and then take a mostly full bottle of rum with me to said confrontation. Even if I did bring alcohol, I probably wouldn't tuck a glass bottle under my coat, right up against my thin shirt.
Rigid gender roles, inconsistent flat characterization, and a story that just doesn't move make Dead Roads a dull and ultimately forgettable story. The end of the novel leaves open the possibility for a sequel, but this reader is steering clear of it.