A dark night, a breakdown, a stranger

This review appeared in The Globe & Mail, April 2007.A dark night, a breakdown, a stranger by ROBERT WIERSEMAThe Line Painter By Claire CameronHarperCollins232 pages$17.95It is one of the great suspense motifs and also, not coincidentally, one of the hoariest of cliches: A woman is driving through the night, on the run. On a deserted country road, her car breaks down. Her desperation builds until she sees lights. A house? A hotel? An oncoming car? Help is at hand, or is it? Will the mysterious  stranger who next appears, usually a man, be her salvation or her doom?It's easy to see why this motif is so popular. The sense of isolation and desperation of a deserted road in the middle of the night is inherently suspenseful. And from  the outset, the situation is loaded with tension, both internal (what is the woman running from?) and external (who is the mysterious stranger?). It's a compelling and  ubiquitous motif that has been used in everything from urban legends to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to a long line of B-movies and TV commercials.It takes a certain amount of courage to tread such well-covered ground; it takes significant talent to make such a familiar conceit feel fresh and original, to lift it  beyond the constraints of the cliche. In her debut novel The Line Painter, which begins with a variation on this motif, Toronto writer Claire Cameron demonstrates  that she has both, in abundance.The novel begins with Carrie McDonald's car breaking down, steam spilling from the radiator. It is 1:08 a.m. on a deserted road "just on the other side" of  Kapuskasing, Ont. Carrie is on the run following the death of her long-time boyfriend, Bill. She's quit her job and is headed west without any destination, her voice  mail filling with messages from increasingly concerned friends and family. She is not, however, as alone as it seems. "The other thing about taking a pee on the side of the highway is that you are guaranteed to see a car coming in the distance." The driver of the car -- a truck, actually -- is Frank, a line painter subcontracted by the highways department to repaint the lines on the road following a winter of  snow and plows. Frank demands that Carrie move her car out of his path, and helps her push it onto the shoulder before offering her a ride. Despite her misgivings, and her initial impression of him, she accepts.Carrie has seen the same movies we have; she knows what happens to women when they accept rides from strangers on dark country roads.  "But I forgot the little details, the simple rules. Don't take candy from a stranger. "Don't talk to strangers. Don't get into a stranger's car. I guess I could have stayed, or walked, or run. But it was dark. It was cold. "I was scared, not just of the dark, but scared of what lay ahead on that road. And back home."That fear is nothing compared to what she feels when she finds what she believes to be some sort of home-made weapon in Frank's truck: "It was a piece of painted  wood covered in duct tape with a big metal blade. The blade had teeth cut into one edge. It looked rough, put together in a rush." The opening pages of The Line Painter are a masterful balancing act of suspense and relief, a dance between expectation and surprise that steadily increases the  tension to an almost unbearable point.Writing in a tight, parsed, minimalist tone, Cameron acutely conveys the tension inherent in the situation and, more  significantly, builds on readerly expectations created by our familiarity with this motif. Cutting back and forth between Carrie's rising fear, her memories and the increasingly concerned voice mail messages of those looking for her creates a tension that  will have most readers squirming in their seats, eagerly leaping from short chapter to short chapter. It's a bravura performance.And then the tone of the novel changes. As the hours pass, the tension of their midnight ride dissipates and The Line Painter becomes an exploration of memory  and regret, an examination of secrets and history. Neither Carrie nor Frank is innocent, yet neither is as he or she first appears, and the conflict between perception  and reality is at the heart of the latter half of the novel.On its own, this is a compelling and thought-provoking storyline, one that rewards careful attention and one that continually surprises. Some of Carrie's actions are  shocking, but nonetheless fully in character. That's a difficult trick for a writer to pull off, but Cameron manages it with aplomb. This second section of The Line  Painter would form an impressive debut novel in its own right. The events of this second part of the novel, however, jar significantly with the suspenseful opening  scenes. The juxtaposition of the psychologically weighted and emotionally fraught later events with the visceral, thrilling midnight meeting is awkward; each  section seems at odds with the other, rather than unified into a single, organic whole. The second half of the book does not deliver on the early promise of suspense  and peril, while the opening passages do little to prepare the reader for the depth of its analysis and thoughtfulness later on. While it is very much worth reading,  some readers may find The Line Painter somewhat less than the sum of its impressive parts.Robert Wiersema's own first novel, Before I Wake, was published last year. © Copyright 2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.