Carrie, the protagonist of Claire Cameron’s debut novel The Line Painter, is consumed by grief after the sudden death of her boyfriend Bill. She takes off in Bill’s car, headed, she decides, for the western reaches of Canada. Friends and family, worried–both about her state-of-mind and for her safety–call repeatedly on her cell phone, leaving messages that give us, as readers, insight into Carrie’s plight and hint at a darker reason for Carrie’s sudden departure.
In a remote area, north of Lake Superior, Carrie’s car breaks down in the middle of the night. She hasn’t passed another car for hours, her friends and family have no idea where she is, her cell phone can’t find service, and most immediately pressing of all, she has an overfull bladder. Universal law dictates that as soon as she squats, headlights appear. But–no ordinary headlights–these belong to the truck of a line painter. In the remotest regions of Canada, Frank works the night shift, alone, tranforming dingy grey road lines into bright white reflective ones, with the help of millions of tiny glass beads suspended in the paint. He offers Carrie a (very slow) ride into the nearest town.
Carrie, we soon realize, is an enigmatic character: she takes up smoking again, because it seems like the thing to do; she tells us she tried, earnestly, to make herself “grow up” by moving in with her boyfriend, wearing suits, and playing house; and she alternates between extreme naivete and a heavy world-weariness. At times, Carrie’s inability to distinguish real danger from imagined, her impulsive attempts to establish control over the situation, and her refusal to face her problems are a source of readerly frustration. But as the story unfolds, her doubts and anxieties begin to make perfect sense. By the end of the book, I was captivated by Carrie’s experiences and by her heart, which was larger than I ever expected. The layers of guilt, regret, grief and loss that emerge in the last third of the book expose the beating heart of this unusual story.
At it’s core, I believe that The Line Painter is a high concept novel. Like Life of Pi, or The Alchemist, Cameron’s novel covers a physical journey–a journey with strange, fantastical elements–that leads the protagonist to a life-changing epiphany. If Life of Pi’s high-concept hook is, “Boy crosses the ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger,” The Line Painter’s hook could be, “Stranded woman gets picked up by a line painter, embarking on a road trip of terror–and ultimately of forgiveness.”