This review appeared in The Torontoist, April 2007.
It happens in the middle of the night on a dark, deserted road in the wilderness near Kapuskasing: Carrie McDonald’s car breaks down. Her mobile phone is without a signal, and nobody knows where she is. The pavement is lit only from Carrie’s headlights, and she strains to hear any approaching vehicle in the dead silence.
As she squats to relieve herself, a slow-moving truck approaches. Carrie notes, “the other thing about taking a pee on the side of the highway is that you are guaranteed to see a car coming. No matter how desolate and lonely the stretch of road and no matter how long you wait to make sure no one is coming, a car appears just at the point you really commit.”
The truck stops, and Carrie meets Frank. He is a line painter—a public employee who lays down paint on Ontario’s northern roads, alone in his weird, slow truck with the passenger-side steering wheel. When the odd man offers Carrie a ride, alarm bells sound—but it is dark, she is cold, and it can’t be too far from town, right?
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The motif isn’t new: it’s been a staple of suspense thrillers and scary movies forever, but it doesn’t really matter. Most would fear having an isolated road accident, and every woman is hyper-aware what happens to those who surrender to rides with strangers. The ubiquitous theme is enhanced by Carrie’s savvy city experience, which perhaps gives her a false sense of confidence when ultimately choosing to climb into the truck despite her misgivings.
Carrie is fleeing Toronto without any clear direction following a catastrophic loss, and line painter Frank refuses to address hints to his own tragic past. Toronto author Claire Cameron effectively rations clues to Carrie’s recent past via the messages in her inaccessible voice mail. Both Carrie and Frank are edgy, hardened personalities, and the reader’s judgment of Frank’s benevolence bends excitingly with Carrie’s own assessment. Frank is a lonely man with a simmering temper, yet he also shows a curious tenderness that draws Carrie sympathetically closer in her own grief.
The Line Painter begins with thrilling suspense. Cameron’s lean prose is accessible and dynamic, and she is skilled at portraying the risky push-pull relationship between “captor” and “captive,” a characteristic of all good thrillers. The Line Painter does lose momentum in the second act when the suspense takes a back seat and it becomes a slightly different type of story, musing on loss and regret. That isn’t to say it’s not a valid shift, but it does grind the hair-raising action to a halt. What’s interesting, however, is that the lull serves to reinforce some of Carrie’s flaws. She is a slightly cold, scrappy kind of person, but it is precisely this quality that allows the grieving and shamed Carrie to somewhat selfishly embark on her solitary road trip. Still, the break in suspense is unexpected, though it does resume in the conclusion.
The Line Painter is Claire Cameron’s debut novel, and she is masterful at propelling through an old premise with adept freshness. Her own experience as an avid mountaineer and white-water rafter gives clues to Carrie’s confidence, but also to The Line Painter‘s reverence for the Ontario wilderness. Where Cameron truly excels is in creating a mood—the text is efficient and not unnecessarily descriptive, yet the setting and characters are crystal-clear. With her serviceable style and page-one-hook, the book is likely to become—and mostly deserves to be—a hit.