Two Steps Forward
by Graeme Simsion
May 1, 2018 · William Morrow Paperbacks
This book contained a lot of my catnip. There was walking, personal journeys, internal conflict, external challenges, larger meaning to simple interactions, and a deliberately paced travel story and romance that meanders through two countries. It’s a slow moving travel romance, and I love those.
The main characters are two people who decide for individual, personal, or spiritual reasons to walk the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), or the Chemin, which is a very old pilgrimage trail that winds through Europe, into France and then into Spain, ending in Santiago de Compostela. Told in alternating first person points of view, their different ways of approaching the Camino, their reasons, and the changes they gain from it are the bulk of the story.
Zoe, a 45 year old widow, visits a college friend in France after many years, still grieving from the unexpected death of her husband. Zoe is rather impulsive, content to drift along and abide by the influences around her, changing herself to suit the circumstances. There are a few moments in her life that are marked by her own determination, and those moments change her life drastically. In one, she drove said college friend, at the time in the US as a French exchange student, over 2000 miles to have an abortion, a decision that ended Zoe’s relationship with her mother, who did not approve. In another moment of determination, she flew to visit that same friend, saw a pendant of a scallop shell in a window that she really loved, and thus encountered the Camino and decided to walk it.
Zoe hadn’t prepared or shopped for equipment, but sets off anyway, figuring that she’ll stay in the inexpensive or free hostels that are available for the Camino pilgrims in each town. She realizes eventually that her lack of preparation is going to cause her problems, because the Camino is arduous and difficult, but her problems are softened almost immediately by the kindness and generosity of the people around her, most of whom are accustomed to the unique way of life that is living on or near the Camino route. Zoe is constantly looked after, and even when her circumstances are difficult or unpleasant, she doesn’t really confront her own culpability in her actions until later.
Martin is an English engineer in his 50s who is recovering from a painful and messy divorce. His wife cheated on him with his boss, so he’s lost his spouse and his job, and he’s so angry with his ex that he leaves England, figuring that his absence is better for their teenage daughter than his acrimonious presence in his daughter and ex-wife’s lives. He figures he’s too angry to be much good to Sarah, his daughter, and needs to sort himself out alone. He finds the Camino after noticing a man with a walking cart designed to carry the camping load of the pilgrims on the Camino, and figures that he can design and build, and then test a better cart. Instead of a backpack, Martin is going to haul his cart up and down the trails of the Camino, document the journey on a blog to attract potential customers, then try to sell the design to one of several already-curious camping supply companies.
Martin is methodical, regimented, and goal-oriented. He’s going to walk the trail, he’s going to arrange lodging for himself for the next two nights, he’s going to use a GPS to track his movements and test the technology for a friend in the British Army, and he’s going to stay on schedule. He isn’t daunted by the Camino, or the length of the journey, but he does find some of the pilgrims on the trail with him to be annoying and frustrating. He focuses on his tasks and his daily goals, but doesn’t really question the other reasons why he might be embarking on a thousands-of-kilometers walk that takes him farther and farther away from his old life.
Awhile ago, an acquaintance of mine walked the Camino and developed handmade ‘zines about her journey. When she added me to her mailing list, I was thrilled. I still have them. One of the things she said at the time was that a lot of people asked her why she decided to walk the Camino, and her eventual answer was, and I’m paraphrasing, either a journey like that is going to appeal to you, or it’s not. And if it does appeal, you kind of understand why another person does it.
Because this kind of journey that’s challenging and arduous does indeed appeal to me, and because I’ve done similar, though far less lengthy journeys, I was already curious about this book. When I learned the different reasons Martin and Zoe are walking the Camino, and how their personalities are both drawn to one another and serve foils for one another’s challenges, I was entirely on board. I started it on a Friday night, then spent most of the next day reading the bulk of it, entirely delighted that I was able to spend hours reading this story, traveling with the characters, and then finishing the book with the characters when they finished their own journey. Their trip took weeks; I was so drawn in by the book that I finished it in under a day.
It was a very touching, meditative story for me. I saw a number of reviews before I started reading that said it was boring. I can understand why some readers found it to be so, and I don’t fault them at all for that reaction. There can be a lot of monotony in the bulk of a character’s day following the same routine as the day before: get up, find coffee and breakfast, walk. Stop for a break, maybe get a meal, walk some more, walk again, take a break, still more walking, then find a place to sleep before getting up to repeat that same sequence.
For me, the way the characters’ paths diverge and connect, which was reflected in the many different routes of the Camino that pilgrims can follow, was fascinating. There’s a thread that weaves through all the stories that weighs whether fate, divine intervention, or self determination, decision, and preparation creates the next step in someone’s life. Zoe discovers the Camino because of a pendant that speaks to her, and finds that the idea of the Camino does, too. Martin designs and builds a cart to walk the Camino differently because he knows he can, and because why not? Martin very much enjoys being right about things. There are many ways to walk the Camino, and of course there are many people there to judge whether one is walking it the “right” way, but in the end, each person finds their reason for beginning the pilgrimage, then getting up each day to continue.
I also found the romance between Martin and Zoe, who have both already lived a large portion of their lives, to be wonderfully rich and evocative. Not only are they setting new habits in a temporary bubble environment of the Camino, but they are also confronting and undoing old habits and autopilots of their lives, and in some cases have to question themselves about why they see things a certain way, or why they view the world from a particular angle. Zoe is all about identifying what to think about specifically as she walks. She processes her grief for her late husband, for her mother, who died before they could reconcile, and for her life now that her marriage is over and her children have grown up. She learns that she must rebuild on her own existence. Her life was destroyed when her husband died because she learned that his business was deeply in debt, and most of what they owned had to be sold to cover those debts. She went to France with barely anything. She’s starting over with very little except her own talent and ingenuity, which she learns to use and assert for her own happiness and well being. Being a trained massage therapist becomes a very lucrative skill on a trail full of people who have been walking all day for weeks.
Martin, on the other hand, doesn’t think about his life expect to observe what has been decided: his ex is horrible, he’s very angry and hurt, but it’s over, so he’s going to walk on. He has a daughter and he loves her, but their communication initially focuses on his tutoring her through her math studies over Skype and text. He is certain it is better if he and his residual anger at his ex are far from both his ex and his daughter. But as I said, both Martin and Zoe have a lot of internal work to undo and repair, and the external challenges of the Camino and the lack of pretty much anything else to do but walk and think gives them time and space in which they can, and then must, address themselves. They’re both managing grief, loss, starting over, emotional devastation, soreness, hunger, and blisters, and they also learn a number of minor but also major things about themselves.
Martin specifically learns that even though he was right, and knows he is right, resting on the confidence and assurance of being right can end up being the wrong decision. He can be right and also wrong at the same time on the same issue – which was hell on his regimented and orderly mind. Martin also learns something about a secondary character at the end and cites a French proverb, “To know all is to forgive all.” That concept has stuck with me as I thought about the book and took notes for this review. We only meet a person as they are in the moment we encounter them, not knowing the forces and influences that led them to that moment, any more than they know ours. Knowing more about a person leads to more understanding of the “why” of that person.
The romance progresses in starts and stops (also like the Camino) in part because both Zoe and Martin recognize their own interest and attraction to one another, but also recognize the immediate and long term difficulties of acting on that attraction. Zoe specifically knows she is not in an emotional state to begin or contemplate a healthy relationship with anyone, and several times must choose herself over Martin, which seems counterintuitive to her own happiness. As Martin says in a later chapter, a relationship on the Camino would be a temporary encounter that’s part of a transition. Each person on the Camino is in transition, from point to point on the pilgrimage and within their lives, and if he was serious about her, he had to take the context of their encounters into consideration. I appreciated that the context of their relationship was part of their debate whether to have one in the first place.
I didn’t appreciate some of the ways in which one of their back stories would suddenly be given a weighty chapter of internal processing. In one example, there’s a whole section in which Zoe’s understanding of her marriage is reframed and her understanding of her relationship changes painfully, but because I had been given so little information about her late husband in the first place aside from what had happened to him, I was more confused and yanked out of the story than I was empathetic to her experience. It’s difficult to capture all the aspects of a person’s backstory when their immediate journey is very deliberately located in the very immediate present, one foot in front of the other. But the lack of emotional depth in the early part of the story meant that the descent into grief and self recrimination in the middle was befuddling. Her rage and fury seemed to come out of almost nowhere, and I didn’t know quite what to do with it.
I highlighted a number of passages, however, some of which focus intently on the circumstances in front of the characters, and others which reveal how the monotony of walking can lead to a 30,000+ foot view of their lives. Some of them might seem twee out of context, but in context they remained thought-provoking for me upon re-reading them.
Here is Martin examining the guideposts on the trail in Spain:
After finding my way through the Pyrenees, the abundance of signposts on the Camino was almost insulting. Stone markers emblazoned with the scallop-shell symbol gave a stronger sense of permanence to the Camino than the stuck on squares in France. They were supplemented by the crudely painted yellow arrows which I had thought were a local anomaly in Hondarribia. The French, and for that matter the English, would not have countenanced such eyesores. The clash between the arrows and otherwise pleasant bucolic environment dramatically expressed the two different mindsets one might bring to the walk: contemplation of nature or a focus on getting to Santiago. The journey or the destination. I’d have said that my own motivation was more in line with the arrows. I still didn’t like them.
For a book featuring pilgrims from all over the world, all of whom had different purposes or reasons for their walk, the characters were largely homogeneous. The group of women from Brazil, all of whom manage the daily walks differently, provides the greatest amount of challenge and upheaval to everyone else, and one makes a subtle revelation about herself that I wish had been explored more.
Faith is another aspect I wish had been more developed, though Zoe goes through a lot of religious self-interrogation. There are characters who hew close to the religious purpose of the Camino, and others who are contentedly atheist and uninterested in anything having to do with the Catholic Church – and still others who wrestle with their faith as it was and is at that moment. Within that struggle, each one is connected to the hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims who have walked the same path over thousands of years, as Zoe pondered after checking into a monastery for a night’s lodging:
I checked in and climbed the huge staircase of worn stone to the dorm; it seemed like the monks of the ninth century had just departed and, for a few moments, standing alone in the silence, I felt I was somehow connected with all the souls that had gone before.
That connection is one of the aspects of this story I liked most, even when the emotional journey baffled me, and the romance, a secondary consideration to the walk itself, at times frustrated me. Everything is complex and simple at the same time in this story, and each character has a LOT to process. But they, like me, get through it by continuing on. We keep walking forward. One step leads to the next, and we keep going. While I can see and enumerate the flaws I found in my own experience with this book, I also very much enjoyed it, and feel honored to have experienced the Camino with the characters, and the journey within the story itself.
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