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Review of ‘White Horse’ by Alex Adams

‘White Horse’ by Alex Adams

Acknowledgement: The review copy of this novel was provided by Simon & Schuster Australia. They posted it on Facebook here

Reviewed by C P Howe

At first glance White Horse, Alex Adams’ first novel, would seem to be part of the current surge in post-apocalyptic fiction. However Adams has created something that stands out from the crowd.

Alternate short sections throughout the book are labelled ‘date: then’ and ‘date: now,’ and using this simple structure Adams skilfully reveals, over the course of nearly 300 pages, the reasons why the main character, Zoe, leaves home and the outcome of her journey. Both sections are told exclusively in the first person by Zoe and Adams’ use of the present tense in both creates considerable tension and drama. We see the story unfold before us without any expectation on Zoe’s part that she will survive. She is not telling us the story from some point in the future; she is telling us what happens as it happens.

At times I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both Zoe, and the unnamed man and boy in The Road, are travelling in in a future where money has no value and other people can’t be trusted. Adams doesn’t flinch from graphic descriptions of the brutality and violence that are a consequence of the disease – White Horse – that has been unleashed on humanity. She gives us just enough detail that we can understand the complexity and despair of what is going on, but we are at as much of a loss as Zoe to explain it. Adams isn’t tempted to give us a convenient, knowledgeable, character who might allow the reader and Zoe to complete the picture. Zoe doesn’t know what’s going on, so we can’t know either, and this is a brave and ultimately successful decision by the author. When revelations do come, their source is as much a surprise to Zoe as to the reader, as is Zoe’s own role in the unfolding of the bigger events going on around her.

Zoe’s ability to survive some of the violence she encounters borders on the incredible. Adams stretched my trust to breaking point, but in the end the depth of character she built up for Zoe means I believed her. Adams’ ability with details, from the doorman in her building to Roma gypsies in Italy, allows the creation of an entirely credible world. Her descriptions of a rapidly depopulating city are utterly convincing, weaving together violence and despair with the everyday challenges of people losing their jobs, or food shortages in the shops.

Adams has a tendency to succumb to cliched metaphors throughout the book which I could have done without although, because the whole story is Zoe speaking, the metaphors are hers which to some extent excuses the author. Nevertheless lines like ‘roads that hug the landscape like a pair of favourite jeans,’ and ‘my daughter’s life is worth as much as a foam cup,’ didn’t sit well with me. I felt Zoe would have been too busy thinking about the challenges she was facing in the present to be distracted by inner metaphoric reflection.

I’m glad to have been asked to review this book. It’s not, perhaps, something I would normally have picked up, but it is imaginative and skilfully written. Readers will know from the outset that it is the first of a trilogy, because it says so on the cover, and this immediately narrows down the kinds of outcome that might be in store for Zoe. What actually happens at the end of the book isn’t something that should be revealed in a review, but I will say that it was both surprising and satisfying. It also sets things up very nicely indeed for the next installment, with an almost perfect combination of resolution and uncertainty.

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