Author: Willy Vlautin
Genre: Literary Fiction
Number of Pages: 192
TRIGGER WARNING(S): Sexual Assault, Domestic Abuse, Suicide, Self-Mutilation, Racism, Child Abuse
Even though I have a few issues with this book, overall it was so good that I still have to give it a rave review. This is the second novel I’ve read by Willy Vlautin after The Motel Life and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. He writes about the lives of troubled, rough-hewn people so vividly they feel like people you’ve actually met and he writes some of my favorite dialogue of all time. It just feels unfailingly authentic and it tells you so much about his characters through everyday exchanges. Northline is about a fragile young woman named Allison who escapes an abusive relationship with a neo-Nazi.
She has a serious alcohol problem and she’s fallen in with some of her ex’s horrible beliefs but she really wants to reinvent herself and break free of the past. She meets some new people who really support the person she’s trying to become and she starts dating Dan, a kind and unassuming guy who’s was left disabled after being the victim of a hate crime. Old habits die hard, though, and Allison finds herself veering towards self-destruction and destroying the tentative life she’s built for herself.
Allison isn’t what you’d call a traditionally strong female lead but she has a lot of complexity to her and she’s painfully believable throughout. Her character falters in terms of her backstory because the author uses an extremely traumatic sexual assault to explain some of her bad decisions. This didn’t entirely sit right with me because it felt stereotypical and I thought he could have portrayed the cycle of pain and addiction she was in in way that was a little less lazy.
Her character was also so static at times with all the drinking and risky sexual encounters that the plot dragged a little around the middle because of it. Overall, though I thought the character development was one of the best things about this story. My heart particularly went out to Dan but I think my favorite character in terms of the writing was Allison’s abusive ex-boyfriend Jimmy Bodie, because he was so darkly humorous and even though he was a completely reprehensible shithead he was so thoroughly compelling and human.
I hated it when he was in the scene with Allison because of how disgustingly he treated her but at the same time most of the most fascinating and dynamic scenes had him in them. Nothing that’s portrayed in Northline is easy to read about but it’s so beautifully written it’s the reader almost finds themselves forgetting that the characters aren’t really people whose conversations the author wrote down verbatim sitting in a public place somewhere.
Despite being a relationship-driven drama Northline proves to be hard to put down, grabbing the attention of the reader the same way a riveting thriller or science fiction novel might. These characters and their attempts to rise above the minutiae of their dead-end lives will stay with me for a long time.
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