A woman hitchhiking alone through the Australian outback: it is a scenario that has been used as fodder for many horror stories. It is also the scenario of Kathryn Hind’s debut novel, Hitch, which introduces readers to the vulnerable Amelia, hitchhiking outside Alice Springs, armed with a backpack, an almost-empty bottle of water and her dog, Lucy. It soon becomes apparent that the alarmingly ill-equipped Amelia isn’t particularly invested in her own survival.
As in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, the backpacking protagonist is on the run from her past, but there is less bravado and glamour here. Amelia herself recognises that while she is chasing an “idea of being free”, she is in fact “stuck in the small world of herself”. That world is traumatically circumscribed by an adolescent experience of sexual abuse at the hands of her best friend’s cousin. This is gradually revealed through flashbacks, which are at times clumsily incorporated into the main story of Amelia’s experiences on the road.
Hind doesn’t always manage pacing in a way that serves tension, but the beginning is confidently handled and introduces complex issues around sexual agency. Amelia’s first ride after leaving Alice Springs is with a young man named Will. A mutual attraction develops, they drink and flirt at a pub at the end of the day, and they go back to Will’s place. Amelia, unsettled by memories of her abuse, is reluctant to take things further and struggles to be the “easygoing, carpe diem girl … she needed to be till this was over”. The sexual encounter with Will is depicted in excruciating detail. It is not rape, but neither is it fully consensual. Certainly, for Amelia, there is no sexual gratification – something Will, the “decent” Aussie bloke, does not even appear to consider. The whole scene is deeply uncomfortable for being so authentically problematic.
Amelia’s subsequent rides tend to be weirder and more obviously menacing, in the vein of the Australian Gothic; and as such they lack the same degree of sociopolitical urgency. The characters in Amelia’s memories – her mother; her best friend, Sid – aren’t wholly realised, and the ending isn’t especially convincing. Still, Hitch is a timely and powerful novel, drawing attention to how women are damaged less often by the serial killers that haunt the imagined Australian outback than by the “good guys” next door.
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "Kathryn Hind, Hitch". Subscribe here.