Book review: Sparrow Hill Road, Seanan McGuire

We all know that I have a fascination for dead things that some people think borders on the inordinate. I also love fiction featuring death-related subjects. And I particularly adore dark humour. Which would be why I love books like Six Feet Over It, and television series like Dead Like Me. They’re funny. They’re also about death and dying, but they have wry, sharp, great main characters who manage to make the narrative fun in addition to embedding some commentary along the way. They’re about death, but also about life.

Sparrow Hill Road is another great entry in my trifecta of death/literary turn ons sweet spot: It involves dead things, it’s funny, and it’s a retelling of a classic story, that of the dead hitchhiker. You’ve probably heard some version of the tale, involving a woman by the side of the road who asks for a ride somewhere. You give her a lift, and she mysteriously vanishes from your vehicle. Depending on the version of the myth, you learn about her death and it’s an omen of your own, or you lend her an object that she takes with her, or any number of things. Lots of cultures have their own versions of the story, which actually predates the car. (In case you’re curious and want to run to an etymology dictionary, the modern sense of the word comes from 1960. You’re welcome.)

Rose Marshall is a pretty ordinary girl in a lot of ways, except she’s, shall we say, life-challenged. Run off the road in 1952 by a man who feeds his car with souls in order to live forever, she’s pretty pissed. But she’s also entered a fascinating underworld (literally, sometimes) of various types of spirits who appear not just to haunt people, but to guide them into the afterlife. We get to watch her interact with any number of myths, legends, and creatures on her quest for vengeance and answers in a complicated story that jumps wildly around a timeline, rather than sticking neatly to a linear progression (props on making that work well, by the way).

The book works splendidly because of the narrator, obviously — Rose is funny, but she’s not played as an excessively brassy, boringly one-note character. Yes, she’s wry and sometimes sarcastic, but she’s also wistful, and contemplative about the circumstances that made her a ghost instead of allowing her to peacefully pass into whatever lies beyond. She takes her duties as a spirit guide extremely seriously, and is at times deeply sad about her assignments — the people she’s pulled to along the spirit roads to guide into the afterlife. Her rich, full, and complicated afterlife is also full of people she loves, and she’s rarely as alone as she might seem.

It’s fascinating to watch her evolve as a character, rather than being stuck in her prom date guise. In the original legend, the ghost seems sort of stuck repeating an endless loop, but she’s dynamic, a woman who evolves and takes form and grows, and also has the ability to change her appearance to suit the environment around her. This distinguishes her from the myth, where the character remains static, but also from some of the ghosts around her, who are trapped in a circular afterlife. McGuire’s version of life after death is incredibly well populated with a diverse spectrum of people and entities that makes it equivalent to the world above ground, and it’s one of the things that draws me to this book.

The narrative, of course, is also excellent, and I really like the way the storyline is laid out. The nonlinear nature constantly pushes you forward because you need to find out what happens next, or fill in a gap in the past that she references, but doesn’t necessarily articulate. The wild bouncing around is a bit fun, honestly, as you find yourself thinking you’ve pinned down the story, only to realize that there’s something else entirely going on that you need to follow in order to understand Rose’s life. Laying things out neatly point by point would have worked too, but this way is more fun — and fun is nearly always better, as long as it’s not played for a gimmick, which this definitely was not.

I am a sucker for retellings, and I find myself getting pickier about them over the years, perhaps because I’ve been a bit oversaturated. It was refreshing to read a new take on an urban legend, rather than the fairytales I’ve been reading so much of lately, and it was also most excellent to read another retelling that I deeply enjoyed — lately, it’s felt like a lot of the books I read are a bit formulaic when it comes to retelling narratives. In these instances, it’s not about the story — we know how that’s going to play out — but how we get there, and that makes the crafting of the story so critically important. Seanan McGuire nailed it with Sparrow Hill Road, and it was a really delightful reminder that retellings still have something to say in the hands of a talented writer.