Thursday, June 06, 2013

Walking away

Grrr. Blogger has gone funny again and I can't see how to post photos of the flower show I went to at the weekend. Ah well.

I'm interested in people's varied reactions to novels - eg the Harold Fry one. I read it for my book group and while most of us didn't like it much, a couple really loved it, like some of my commenters. I'd like to say first of all that I greatly admire anyone who can actually write a whole novel. It's not an easy thing to do and requires imagination and a lot of work.

But I actually found this one quite hard to struggle through. To me, it had an oppressive atmosphere: I finished it late at night and then couldn't sleep. It's about this old chap, Harold, who gets a letter from an ex-colleague who did something mysterious for him in the past. She's now dying. He sets out for a walk. Then he just keeps walking - from his home in the south of England to where she is in Berwick (I think it was) in the very north of England. At first it's quite intriguing but as he keeps walking, in his yachting shoes (not a term I was familiar with but then I don't do a lot of yachting) he gets terrible blisters and hardly eats. Yet he plods on, torturing himself by thinking about the past and about his son, whom he never sees (and it's quite easy to guess why not) and I found it all horribly depressing but at the same time unbelievable. A whole lot of new characters are introduced after a while but they aren't really very significant and then they all go away again, which seems rather pointless. And it's stressful because you don't know if he's going to reach his friend in time. And then in the end - why? - better not say, but .... hmm. Didn't like that bit either.

I realise that it's supposed to be a sort of fable with perhaps a nod to Pilgrim's Progress, and thus maybe it's unreasonable to expect it to be realistic. But then the style was intermittently jokey, which didn't seem to fit with this more serious aspiration.

But lots of people love it and it got good reviews so maybe I'm wrong.

A novel about a spontaneous journey that I much prefer is Anne Tyler's A Ladder of Years. In this, Delia (I think her name is) just walks off along the beach from her grown-up family, who no longer pay much attention to her, gets a lift to a nearby town and starts a new life. I could believe that someone might just do this, that events might turn out as they do in the book and that the emotions might be as described.

I suppose I first read this when the children were small. I used to teach evening classes and once a week I would rush out of the house when Mr L came home and tear up to the college, where I would become a different person: not the mummy of three small people who covered the house with a thin layer of toys and crayons and bit of card and paper but a wise teacher who knew about literature, sentence structure and how to pass (English) exams. And after the students went away, I would get myself organised to go home but feel a certain reluctance to do so - knowing that a couple of the children would be awake and bouncing around and that a certain amount of chaos would still reign. I would get in the car and drive towards home and vaguely fantasise about just driving on past the house till I got somewhere else... .

I mentioned this some friends the other day in an of-course-everyone-feels-like-this-sometimes sort of way and they looked at me and shook their heads in wonder and said... no-o-o.

I wouldn't actually have done it. But I think that's why I like the Anne Tyler so much and was disappointed in the Harold Fry book. I would have bought proper boots if I'd been him. And then got the train.


  1. I liked Harold Fry, apart from the bit in the middle when all those stupid people arrive and interrupt his journey. I thought it a quirky book.

  2. To me, Harold Fry sounds awfully like a book I read a few years ago and now can't remember the title of. It was American and the main character was called Smithson (or Smithy). Google is not identifying it for me.

    As for "A Ladder of Years" - yes, I have also occasionally fantasised about just walking away to a simpler existence (but would also never do it).

  3. But Harold wasn't as sensible as you Isabelle!
    I enjoyed both books for different reasons, Harold because there were two journeys going on simultaneously, one in his (woefully inadequate)yachting shoes, the other in his head.
    I love Anne Tyler's books anyway, but Ladder of Years seemed to have been prompted by urges I myself had often had....I just didn't understand how she heard about them... And didn't give me credit for the idea!
    I think your friends of the raised eyebrows are in denial!

  4. I've not read Harold Fry. I'll have to check into this even though the genre is not one I generally read. I guess I should branch out more.

  5. When the kids are small and you work and have a house there are times when you do fantasize about stepping outside of your own life for a little bit...just to catch your breath.....the friends that said no just don't remember...or had lots of money and help in those long distant days.

  6. Completely agree about Ladder of Years, I used to fantasise about walking away from my life. Also, I used to go to the FE college (to learn computers in the evening). But when I got there, I would just put my head down on the desk and go to sleep. All my exhaustion just overwhelmed me in the peaceful atmosphere.

    Ref Harold Fry, the bit that came alive for me was when the other "Pilgims" joined the pilgrimage and started commercialising and wrecking it. This was believable. Harold himself just wasn't quite believable to me. I understand it started out as a radio play which is a very formulaic structure, strictly defined, and this determined the structure of the novel.

  7. The thing about walking out of your life to create a new one is that you still take yourself with you.

  8. If you'd like a book that absolutely pulls you along joyously like a water-skier behind a power boat, try "The Obituary Writer" by Ann Hood. SUCH a good read! No struggling, and a fabulous finish!

  9. I think everyone has moments when walking out and just not stopping seems less complicated than carrying on .
    A old colleague of mine , a mother of three little boys used to stand by the front door every evening in her coat and escape to the library for half an hour the minute her husband came home from work .As she says , it wouldn't woork now ... libraries aren't quiet , anymore !

  10. I didn't enjoy Harold Fry either though several people recommended it to me. I've not read Ladder of Years though, must try and get it as I'm an Anne Tyler fan. The book I did enjoy in a similar vein was 'The Hundred Year old Man who climbed out of a window'
    I frequently feel like just driving on past the house when I'm on my way home from somewhere - usually coming back reluctantly to do something in Mother-in-law's schedule, so I wouldn't mind if Husband wanted to come too..

  11. Isabelle! This image of you wanting to just drive by the house and the children totally doesn't fit with the mother who mourns her children who have moved away! But then, I suppose things do change....

  12. Well, you see I liked Ladder of Years quite very well. I was frustrated by the end. Book Club thought that she wasn't necessarily going back to husband permanently but I thought she was, and was wasting all that freedom. She just slotted straight back in to all that cooking and sorting and nonsense.

  13. I totally get the walking away. I didn't do it but still.....there was another book, damned if I remember the deets but she did walk away on a vacation somewhere and years later the daughter found her.
    First visit here from Molly and love your blog.