A young man is released from a Sydney prison after 15 years, with no money and very few possessions. He doesn't even know his name. His history, both distant and recent, has left his psyche shattered. He takes on the name "Frank", and quickly hits the road, knowing the general direction in which he needs to go to get home (far north Western Australia). He hitchhikes, relying on the kindness of a succession of colourful strangers along the way.
Each of these strangers has their own story to tell. They ask Frank for his story too, but he doesn't have much to say, and he finds it pretty stressful being around inquisitive strangers so much. Slowly he adjusts to being out in the world again, and even learns some points of etiquette - to wave, smile, and even say thank you sometimes. But as he draws closer to his home, he comes increasingly undone. The old ghosts of his past are swarming around him, and one ghost in particular refuses to leave him alone.
The story ends still clouded in some mystery. Why was Frank in jail in the first place? Did he really live where he thought he lived? What happened after he walked away from the smoking house at age fourteen? (Mills intersperses flashbacks to Frank's boyhood in the narrative) We do have some hints, but nothing is ever really confirmed (unless I'm totally dense and missed it all). I did some speculating about what I think happened in my spoilerific GoodReads review, but I won't do it here in public. ;)
I finished the book a little torn about how I should feel. Sad, or hopeful? I was left with the question, "What now?" because the ending is really Frank's new beginning. His past is gone and irretrievable, it seems, so he's got a clean slate. What's he going to do with it? I've got no clue, but I suppose it's enough just to have hope.
Jennifer Mills is an amazing writer, and I do recommend this book...but only if you're not looking just for a fluffy, chirpy good time.
Some of my fave quotes:
"Shit, I don't touch that stuff now. I'm all clean living these days, been sober nine years. Have to be, you turn into a blob otherwise in this job. On your arse all day like a fucken koala." He pats his small stomach. - p.144
The country is definitely desert now, and it's a relief to see the real thing after so much practice. Purple hills hang in the distance, the ground thin and crackled, rust-coloured like the roof of the van. From the air, the highway must look like it's barely a scratch on the country's paintwork. They pass broken windmills, a shot-up Welcome sign to a long-dead tourist attraction, an abandoned car sticking up out of the saltbush like the shell of a giant beetle. - p.162
They pass a sea of saltbush frozen still, spotted with fat merinos like grey clouds that have shrivelled tight and come down to earth. - p.171
"Where are you headed?" The truckie is forty-odd, cheerful. An encouraging smile.
"Up north," Frank says.
"Where, pacifically? Darwin or what?"
"Where've you come from?" the truckie says.
"Sydney," Frank says. He hopes the trucker won't ask where, pacifically. - p.215