Monday, September 24, 2007

When to Walk by Rebecca Gowers

Rebecca Gowers' first novel When to Walk, which earlier this year was longlisted for The Orange Prize, is a week in the life of Ramble, a character whose narration reminded me of Poppy Shakespeare's, but whose story I found much more satisfying.

The story begins as Ramble's husband tells her that he's leaving her, she inferring that he regards her as an "autistic vampire". Where it goes from there is anywhere you can't imagine, as Ramble deals her own feelings in reaction, but also with her senile grandmother, difficult mother, her gay best friend who fancies her, and the woman downstairs who is a common thief. Ramble's own world is very narrow, due in particular to arthritis which makes walking distances painful. She is also a writer, employed to write travel pieces about places she has never been. And she has been balancing on the verge of a breakdown for sometime, which becomes clear as the story progresses. Her husband's departure sparks crisis, but also provides Ramble with the impetus she needs to make necessary changes in her life.

Where most books have plots, this book has a voice, a character, and a much intriguing one. Ramble's husband claims that she is impossible to reach, and even to those of us privy to her stream of consciousness, she is elusive. She hides in the shadows. As the novel progresses, however we come to see her in all her multiple-dimensions. Unknowingly she begins to let down her guard, disclosing the experiences which have led to her present situation.

Gowers' fashioning of Ramble's voice is a great achievement. First, it is rare to find a disabled character whose disability is secondary to her story. Gowers also creates a convincing point of view of this woman who spends her days watching pigeons out the window, fascinatingly portraying Ramble's inner-life. It is unsurprising that Gowers' previous book was non-fiction, as Ramble spends so much time delivering facts herself. She has her own peculiar fixations: etymology, Edward Lloyd, pigeon ailments. She is preoccupied by her own rather cryptic family history. Some people find a novel so bursting with "stuff" tiresome, but it is usually a mark of the kind of book that I like best. A question of taste, I suppose, but all this was much to mine.