A woman is driving through the desert wasteland. Ahead of her, the road shimmers in the heat. She is running from a dream that is so terrifyingly real that it haunts her waking hours. The pop of a bullet, the rush of blood through water … Is her vision a premonition, a message that she and her daughter are in danger? Then Charlie learns that the mother she never knew has been murdered in Arizona. Soon she must confront her past, and untangle a web of secrets that will reveal the truths of her own nightmare…

Having enjoyed The Gates of Evangeline the debut novel by Hester Young, I was very keen to see what this author would produce next. The Shimmering Road takes us on a journey through the border states of America, exposing the grim realities of those whose lives are defined by their proximity to one of the richest nations on earth, whilst weaving a compelling tale of family, poverty, retribution and the search for emotional closure.

The character of Charlotte is the real epicentre of the book, and she confidently holds the reader’s interest throughout. As a woman from a broken background who has strived and achieved success as a journalist, Young now places her in an entirely different geographical and emotional situation on the cusp of motherhood, yet drawn back into the dark history of her family with the murders of her estranged mother and sister. Charlotte is haunted by violent visions of death, and with the news of these murders is drawn into the desperate lives of her former family, uncovering a dark and sordid tale of sex, drugs and violence. Charlotte possesses all the wisecracking toughness and doggedness of her former career, but by the same token displays credible moments of self doubt and emotional uncertainty, which draws us as readers to her. As she delves deeper into her late mother’s work in the Mexican border towns, we see her assumptions challenged, and her willingness to stop at nothing to expose the mistreatment and exploitation of the members of these communities. I loved her caustic wit, her undulating relationship with her partner Noah and the underlying emotional baggage of his previous marriage, and the very real uncertainty she displays with impending motherhood and the tentative adoption of her late sister’s child. Young cleverly uses her character as not only a conduit for the anger and emotional responses for the other characters, but also uses her as a prism for us to be exposed to the social deprivation she observes as she embarks on the mission to uncover the facts behind the murder of her family. In common with The Gates of Evangeline, as a plot device, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Charlotte’s borderline supernatural visions that draw her in deeper to the demise of her family, but appreciate that this becomes invaluable to her investigations in Mexico later in the book.

Having had a long-held interest in the socio-political aspects of Mexico, I was completely hooked by the clear and precise, though not necessarily comfortable, portrayal of life amongst the destitute inhabitants of Nogales. Here, Young draws us into a gruelling world of extreme poverty and sexual exploitation, that is uncompromising, and sadly, all too accurate. What proves interesting is how Young so clearly shows the difference in morality that enables people to survive in dire circumstances, and how some toil in the most indescribably harsh and dangerous conditions to ensure the survival of their families. Others however, through greed and lack of compassion, are more than happy to make a buck by exploiting young girls either for men’s sexual gratification, or to take part in ‘baby farming’ for rich and childless American couples. As Charlotte begins to explore this world, through the charitable work of her reformed late mother, she tends to reflect the sheer horror at these people’s lives that we experience as readers, and to mirror our emotional reactions to these desperate circumstances. This aspect of the book was intense, incredibly well-written and utterly compelling.

I thought this for the most part an extremely accomplished book, with its vivid characterisation, intense emotion, and a wonderful expose of those whose lives are in such stark contrast to our own. Undercut by moments of humour and extreme pathos, Young has produced not only an effective thriller, but a book that is packed with issues of family, poverty and revenge. Recommended.

(With thanks to Penguin Random House for the ARC)