Hello dear readers and welcome to my new column – all about books which, although they’re not on the bestsellers lists, are still really great reads! So tuck in, grab a cup of tea, and join me; you might just find your new favourite book.
You know those books that you read when you were young, that filled your mind with dreams and never quite let go? The Devil On The Road is such a book for me; every time I re-read it I’m transported not only into the story, but to the 16-year-old girl that first fell for it.
The Devil On The Road, by Robert Westall, was published in the UK in 1979. It tells the story of John Webster, a university student from London who takes his motorbike out during the summer holidays and decides to go wherever the road takes him. Webster is a lover of chance, and his luck seems to be with him as he diverts from the main roads and ends up in the lush, bucolic idyll of Suffolk. Although only an hour from London, Suffolk was – and is – one of the most rural of English counties, where time really does seem to stand still.
The weather, and a mysterious malfunction on his bike, cause Webster to stop at a huge old barn for shelter. The local farmer persuades John to stay on, insisting that he needs his help over the busy summer months, and then John befriends a tiny stray cat…
Although wonderfully written in a laid-back, down to earth style, The Devil On The Road does ask the reader to suspend disbelief, if only at first. The cat, it turns out, is actually the “familiar” of Johanna, a 17th century witch who was executed by Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. John becomes attached to Johanna, and ventures back in time with his yellow motorbike helmet and orange leathers to rescue her and her fellow “witches” from the gallows.
On the way he comes across Civil War soldiers – roundheads – who are terrified of the “devil” with his “head of butter” and “garb of flame”, and pulls Johanna out of the clutches of Hopkins and his cronies. So, all ends happily, right? Wrong.
As Johanna settles into the barn, which was once her manor house, John begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. Local villagers start to refer to him as a “cunning”, a sort of male witch, and Johanna seems to know quite a bit more about modern life than a 17th century gentlewoman should.
Although technically a Young Adult book, The Devil On The Road has a lot of adult themes; not least Johanna’s seduction of John both physically and magically – using psychology and more than a few spells to make him stay with her. As he travels back in time, this is no great historically-themed narrative, and you don’t have to be a history scholar to understand it. John first realises he is no longer in his own time simply by seeing living elm trees, and even when he is fighting the roundheads he is really just a lad in his 20s out for a fight.
In the end, John is unable to give Johanna what she needs, a permanence in her life to counteract the rip in time she created, and so he leaves – or escapes, should I say – pushing his dead bike into a raging thunderstorm; refusing to look back at the barn and Johanna, bathed in sunlight.
Johanna once describes time whilst making bread; she forms a tiny man out of dough and then kneads him back into the mixture, and although he is no longer visible, he is still inside the folds of time. So, when John leaves, she quietly unfastens the folds of time, prepares the setting, and waits for the next rescuer, hoping that he will be the one to stay.
I live in East Anglia, the part of England which contains Suffolk, and this book is perfect in its description of the languid, balmy summer days when the only sounds to be heard are birds, bees and tractors. There is a timelessness about the place, and an unspoken acceptance of the ancient things which are just out of our reach.
This is the magic of The Devil On The Road I think, that it’s such a straightforward story of boy meets girl, with a bit of adventure and time travel thrown in, but mixed in such a way that it all knits together perfectly. The story is at times creepy, terrifying, funny and malevolent, but there is never real, pure evil.
I find it comforting that in this modern world, there is still room for magic and mystery, and for John Webster too; a lost soul letting Fate steer his life as she sees fit.