Wednesday 16 May 2007

When to Walk

Rebecca Gowers

I must be completely mad: this book is in seven chapters, one for every day of the week starting with Saturday, but I started it on a Thursday. It might be nice for you to start on a Saturday and read one chapter a day for the next week. But that’s just a suggestion; it’s not important.

The week in question belongs to Ramble, a first-nameless, mildly-disabled copywriter whose husband has just left her. That’s perhaps not terribly important either. The stuff of the novel is Ramble’s beguiling narrative voice. Ramble likes to make random observations about language, for example how the word ‘dust’, when used as a verb, can have one of two opposite meanings: ‘dust this cake’ calling for something very different than dusting the mantelpiece. Occasionally she bursts into illiterate advertising copy-speak, usually in the spirit of laughing not crying: ‘Antidotal evidence reveals that most marriages excels people’s lowest expectations a much amount more than realised. But why hark on your troubles?’

Ramble’s troubles include figuring out what happened to her marriage and how she is going to cope (not least financially), hacking out an article about ice sculptures for a travel magazine, and coping with the ever-increasing pain of her hip. She also claims to be partly deaf, but I’m not convinced about that. Over the course of the week, she goes to the library a couple of times, befriends a downstairs neighbour who seems to know more about Ramble’s husband than she does, visits her demented grandmother, and sleeps with her gay best friend. Then her husband comes back.

I don’t think I’m giving much away: if you read the book to find out what happened next, you’re going to be disappointed. Ramble is more concerned with what happened in the past, sometimes the distant past of her relatives, sometimes her own past, sometimes cooky Victoriana; she is especially keen on bad jokes. Much of the time it is difficult to distinguish passing trivia from meaningful information. When she receives an email that looks to the reader like spam – ‘Dear Ramble, I will confide the below to Professor Cohen before I send it, but please could you have another opinion about my English. I should like you to consider this letter as a confidential matter’ – it turns out to be a genuine request from Ramble’s friend Beata, but beyond being mildly diverting for a while, this doesn’t go anywhere either.

The novel is a bid like a ‘taking your pencil for a walk’ drawing: what’s important is not where the pencil goes, or where it ends up, but the picture it leaves behind. And what is left behind is a portrait of Ramble in four dimensions: her character is actually quite quickly established and immensely likeable. By the end, though, I found I’d gone off her a bit: you know how you can warm to someone with a self-deprecating sense of humour, but after a while it’s more like low self-esteem and you start to share their estimation? I suppose part of the problem is that everyone else in the book is so awful.

Ramble’s gay best friend Johnson is the only character who really doesn’t ring true: he seems more like a fantasy friend, all unconditional love and whatever, and that contributes to Ramble’s unattractive pathos; though it is through this relationship that Ramble’s mother is portrayed, and made impressively real despite the fact that she never appears in her own right. The neighbour Mrs Shaw only contributes to Ramble’s confusion, making her seem increasingly helpless. Ramble is probably at her best with her grandmother Stella Ramble, whose lack of awareness allows her to relax and stop worrying so much.

Ramble’s husband Con stands in (or walks out) for Ramble’s general dissatisfaction with life, and his absence does open the possibility of a new life for Ramble, except that it wasn’t her choice, so for much of the book she is just bewildered. That possibility is always there though. Reading When to Walk is a bit like finding a row of photos left behind outside a photo both, showing a possibly attractive but rather gormless woman who has now moved on anyway.



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