Hitch (Penguin Random House 2019) by Kathryn Hind won the inaugural Penguin Literary Prize two years ago. Readers are immersed in this story of one young woman (and her dog) as she hitchhikes across the country while trying to outrun her past.

Amelia is alone and sometimes lonely. With only her backpack and her dog Lucy for company, she sets off on a solo adventure, crisscrossing Australia from the desert to the sea, from the outback to small towns to cities. She is hitchhiking – a notion that immediately registers an alert in the reader. An alert that is not unfounded. From the opening pages, we sense the sinister menace ever-present in the chances she takes accepting rides from complete strangers. While it’s true that some are kind, it’s also true that some are suspicious, dangerous, creepy, untrustworthy and well, just plain weird. But what’s most intriguing and mesmerising about this book is that Amelia – and indeed the reader – cannot tell or know the difference. She must use her radar to scan every person she encounters, to try to ascertain the risk factor. Is his lack of hygiene a bad sign? What secret signals are the couple giving each other that she can’t decode? Did he accidentally nudge her leg when he changed gears? Is his quietness a welcome gift or a subtle warning? Amelia is constantly on high alert, watching for danger, anticipating trouble, trying to be as small and as unobtrusive as possible so as not to attract attention or suggest any kind of openness to an advance or intimacy.

The plot is fairly simple and is a straightforward linear narrative of this one period of her travels. There are days when not much happens. Days that could be terrifying but end up banal. It is this very relentless monotony of high stress accompanied by little action that gives the novel its disturbing and threatening subtext. We are finely attuned to every small behaviour that might indicate trouble. We are kept in a constant state of high alert. Sometimes our misgivings are founded; often we just don’t know – Amelia extricates herself from the situation before we can find out whether or not she would have been okay had she stayed. It’s exhausting.

The underlying story is the reason behind her travels and it is twofold. Firstly, her mother has recently died, and Amelia is in an acute stage of mourning and grief. She has not processed her mother’s death and is not ready to confront her house and all that is familiar. Secondly, at her mother’s funeral, she is confronted by Zach, a young man with whom she had a relationship as a teenager many years before. The issues of consent, desire, culpability, abuse, guilt, shame and self-worth are explored through her fear of Zach and what he represents, not only himself, but also what he represents in her.

The uplifting part of the novel, the optimistic thread, is her friend Sid, another young man she has known since childhood, a friend and ally. Someone she has left in order to find herself. Someone who hasn’t stopped caring. Someone to whom she believes she might, one day, perhaps find her way back. The only complication is that Sid and Zach are not only cousins but best mates, and that adds a whole other layer of difficulty to their relationship, to what is said and unsaid.

During her travels, the harsh Australian landscape and environment is depicted with authenticity; every dry roadside, every parched tree, every dusty path and abandoned dwelling is a warning: take care, this is inhospitable country.

This novel is poetic and literary. It is a meandering story where pages and pages can go by without much happening, and yet because of the voice of the main character, because of the compelling sense of urgency and concern we feel for her, we meander along with it, tension rising and falling with each hitchhiking encounter, as her past and her reasons for wanting to escape gradually become apparent. The author doesn’t tell us too much too soon but skilfully allows us to fill in the gaps. Gripping, tender, traumatic, empathetic and wise, Hitch will pick you up and give you an uncertain ride; you won’t know where you’re going, who you’re travelling with, or where you might end up. You can only hope you survive.