The present review is likely to be an exception in a blog that has been so far exclusively dedicated to music. In fact, this is the review of a book that has nothing to do with music – except for the fact that its author is as big as a music fan as I am. He is also one of the best friends I have made in the past few years (even if we have not yet met face to face), and someone whose dedication to the cause of progressive rock vastly eclipses mine.
With plenty of experience as a journalist and a blogger, Torodd Fuglesteg (a native of Norway who currently resides in Glasgow, Scotland) loves to write about a wealth of subjects, from his frequent bicycle rides to weightier commentaries about the state of the world – not to mention short but informative album reviews. The Final Ride is his first full-length book, a semi-autobiographical novel published in e-book form in the summer of 2012 that blends fact and fiction in a way that may prove either frustrating or intriguing for readers – or both. Though not perfect (nor intended to be), it makes compulsive reading, and packs an intense emotional punch for all its no-frills, matter-of-fact style.
Browsing through Torodd’s numerous writings available on the Web, a picture emerges of a complex person, at the same time reserved and open about himself, possessed of an uncommon depth of feeling and empathy for his fellow humans. He is also provided of a keen sense of self-deprecating humour, and quite single-minded in his pursuits, be it music or bike rides. However, in the story narrated in The Final Ride music is never mentioned, and humour is conspicuously absent: indeed, the tale unfolds in sober, somber fashion until its deeply moving, albeit somewhat shocking end.
Written almost in diary form, the story takes place over a week, and is divided in seven chapters (one for each day), in turn divided into shorter sections, chronicling the first-person narrator’s journey to the places where he spent the first half of his life. From various hints scattered throughout the book, we learn that the narrator is a man in his sixties, and we cannot help but feel amazed at his stamina in facing a lengthy and physically demanding bicycle ride in a mountainous area. Very few names are mentioned, and the narrator’s country of origin is hinted at but never revealed explicitly, so that the reader is left to wonder which parts of the tale are fact, and which are fiction.
The realistic tone of the narration is threaded with a hauntingly lyrical vein of sadness and loss, often conveyed by natural imagery – like the yellow dandelions mentioned in the novel’s opening sentence. Lakes, rivers, mountains and fields do not merely provide a dramatic backdrop, but take on an almost human quality. Indeed, for a novel that has been compared to a road movie, the human presence is downplayed, and the narrator’s interaction with the people he meets during his trip is kept to a minimum, so that it feels as if he is travelling alone in a country peopled by the ghosts of his past. As he is an expatriate, the people who have an important role everyday life (such as his long-time partner, Angela), though always present in his thoughts, are physically removed from the main stage of the tale, leaving him free to concentrate on his memories.
The narration seamlessly weaves the past and the present, with each scene from the present (the bike ride) conjuring a memory from the past. The transition is managed expertly, creating a sense of flow with its accomplished, almost stream-of-consciousness technique. There is also a lot of repetition, as if the narrator wanted to constantly remind the reader of his shortcomings and bad choices.The draft-like, somewhat unpolished nature of the text (complete with a few consistently misspelled words) adds to its peculiar charm, rather than making it look amateurish.
The Final Ride is not always comfortable reading, and the reader might occasionally be put off by the narrator’s negative perception of himself. However, the story is not all unrelenting misery, and – while his memories are clearly a source of pain for the narrator, and his estrangement from his former life is often harrowing to witness – there is also a sense of gratitude and appreciation of life that rescues the novel from being a complete gloom-fest. The feeling of self-loathing that pervades much of the narration is tempered by acceptance, and the simple comfort found in one’s hobbies and interests – not to mention the calming influence of a woman’s sincere love and support.
The story struck a chord with me on several levels, and will probably have the same effect on people who have gone through drastic changes in their life, and lost many of the cornerstones of their previous lives. The narrator’s bleak sense of loss following the death of his parents, sharply contrasted with his voluntary estrangement from his siblings and other surviving relatives, is likely to resonate keenly with many readers, as is his choice to leave his home country for good and rebuild a life elsewhere.
While it may look at first like a tale of defeat, the novel is ultimately about coming to terms with your choices, and making the most of what life throws at you. Indeed, the whole writing process must have been deeply cathartic for the author – like closing a door for the last time, and deciding to look ahead instead of looking back. In spite of its stark, potentially depressing subject matter, The Final Ride makes for an oddly uplifting read.