A young British writer with septic arthritis tries to cope after her husband unexpectedly announces that their marriage is “defunct”
When to Walk. By Rebecca Gowers. Canongate, 235 pp., $14, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Rebecca Gowers writes in When to Walk that the Victorian poor gave their babies a substance called Venice Treacle, “which induced an opium stupor while the mothers went out to work.” That line – interesting in itself — also suggests the emotional state of the narrator of this novel, longlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize: She sometimes seems to be in an opium stupor without the opium.
Early on, the narrator’s husband of three years announces that their marriage is “defunct,” and the novel describes her attempts to cope during the following week. Gowers’s publisher calls the story a “ramble into familial failures, urban isolation, unreliable relationships” and more.
That’s true, but for a ramble, When to Walk is oddly overdetermined. The surname of the narrator, for example, is Ramble. Nearly every character has a name freighted with so much baggage, you sense that Gowers doesn’t trust you to figure such things out on your own. Ramble’s husband, Constantine, known as Con, acts like an emperor and gets involved with small-time con artists. Her gay best friend with a bisexual past has the doubly phallic name of Johnson Pike, and if that suggests to you that he might be tempted at some point show her his johnson, you’re right. Her half-batty grandmother, Stella Ramble, is always referred to that way, never as “Gran” or Grandma,” implying a distance between the two characters that the story doesn’t entirely support.
The overdetermination is all the more distracting because the novel is underplotted. Gowers sets up minor subplots that go nowhere – one about a friend her heroine is helping with her English and another about a Holocaust-era photograph she finds amid her grandmother’s belongings. Ramble also has septic arthritis – similar to Lyme Disease – presumably intended as a metaphor for the creaky joints of her life and marriage. But the relation between her physical and emotional states isn’t clear: To what degree, if any, is the illness responsible for her bad marriage and dull job writing travel articles about places she hasn’t seen? Little enough happens overall that the novel crawls along until the whiz-bang final chapter, where the story gains the steam it has lacked until then.
So When to Walk is less successful as a novel than as a collection of anecdotes, many about the Victorian era. Some of these tell stories more interesting than that of the book as a whole, including one about the author of the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “I can state for certain that at some point in the early 1840s, when she was still a child, Christina Rossetti was taken to Madame Tussaud’s on a treat that was a total failure,” Gowers writes. “Why? Because she’d been taught that it’s rude to stare.”
Best line: “For all the time I’ve known her, Stella Ramble has, in the old phrase, been ‘living on unkindly terms with her years.’” Old phrase? I’d never heard it but know a lot of people to whom it applies.
Worst line: An e-mail message from a character who works for a college, whom Ramble is helping with her English: “Boustrophedon is when the lines of the inscription go left to right, right to left (retrograde means the characters being r to l too as in a mirror), left to right etc. Boustrophedon translates to mean the way oxen turn back and forth over a field when they plough. Whereas, false boustrophedon, alternate lines instead of having vertical orientation will curl around upside down, this also being called Schlangenschrift which means snake-writing.” As mangled English, this isn’t funny enough. It is hardly, if all, distinguishable from much of what passes for acceptable in academia today.
Published: October 2007 www.canongate.net
Furthermore: Gowers also wrote The Swamp of Death: A True Tale of Victorian Lies and Murder (Penguin, 2004). When to Walk was one of 20 books on the longlist for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize www.orangeprize.co.uk, which also included novels by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley.
Cover story: Joe Berger’s cover for When to Walk differs by a mile from what American publishers typically choose for books about young women and their relationships — in part because it isn’t pink — and this is much to the credit of the Edinburgh-based Canongate Books. The spirit of the cover is very Scottish, though it contains none of the usual Scottish cliches such (such as kilts, thistles or Nessie), and the story is set in an unnamed British city. The cover is mainly green, the same shade that many of the spear-pointed iron fences in Edinburgh were until painted black after the death of Prince Albert. Some fences have been repainted in the shade.
One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site in the world on Google on Sept. 6, 2007 www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.
Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.