|Jason Hewitt, author of Devastation Road|
Say 'road novel' or 'road movie' to anyone, and you'll likely get Kerouac's 'On the Road' or 'Thelma and Louise' or 'Easy Rider', or even 'The Grapes of Wrath' as an answer, or some other example which makes the genre seem uniquely American. But the road or journey as a narrative form has its roots much earlier than that, in Homer's Odyssey, or Virgil's Aeneid - a hero sets out on an often perilous journey, survival by no means guaranteed, but when the destination is finally attained, he will have learned something about himself and the world he lives in.
Devastation Road is such a Bildungsroman: an Englishman wakes up in a field somewhere in Europe in the last days of World War II. He doesn't know who or where he is, only that he is lost, and has lost his memory. He meets Janek, a Czech teenager, and despite not speaking the other's language, they manage to piece together enough to discover they share a common cause: the urge to learn the fate of their respective brothers. They start walking, like the millions of other displaced persons in 1945 - which feels incredibly potent in the context of the current refugee crisis - in search of safety, and in Owen's case particularly, in search of identity.
It's a meticulously researched novel - Hewitt took the physical journey his protagonists take in the novel and also learned to speak Czech - but it's Hewitt's ability to conjure the intense, vivid, claustrophobic confusion of a Europe broken apart by war and to deftly explore themes of identity, nationhood, and the extremes to which desperate people are driven in a bid to survive, that gives Devastation Road its narrative impact.
Jason Hewitt will be my guest at The Books That Built Me at the Club at Cafe Royal on 6th October. Tickets are £26.99 (plus eventbrite fees) and include a copy of Devastation Road, a glass of Bollinger, a bar of Prestat chocolate and a 6 month subscription to Tatler (at the special price of £12 for 6 issues)
The podcast below is a brilliant conversation between Scribner's Elizabeth Preston and Jason Hewitt about Devastation Road - and it's really worth a listen