Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Groove Book Report - Two Steps Forward - By Graeme Simsion & Anne Buist Text Publishing $29.99

After hiking 2038 kilometres in 87 days in 2011, Anne Buist made a decision to worry less, write more.  Graeme Simsion picked up an abandoned screen script that became The Rosie Project, the international bestseller of late-blooming first love.  Six years later their path to personal reinvention has resulted in a collaboration, Two Steps Forward, a novel of mature love and self discovery set against the scenic backdrop of the pilgrims' walk.

If you hit Google, you'll bring up a pretty healthy list of literary couples.  You've got Percy and Mary Shelley; Virginia and Leonard Woolf; Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and maybe even Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Of Course, we also have Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton.  But, curiously, none of these duos ever wrote and published a book together. Whether that was due to differing writing styles or maybe just too much ego in the room, either way cohabitation and co-writing is a pretty rare thing to find.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Graeme Simsion a few year's ago for Groove.  He is the internationally bestselling author of The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect and The Best of Adam Sharp.  His partner, Anne Buist, is also an author (writing the Natalie King thriller series) - Both are published by Text. They live together in Melbourne.  Two Steps Forward is their first published collaboration.

The novel is structured into short, first-person chapters: the initial strand, entitled “Zoe”, is written by Buist, the second, entitled “Martin”, is written by Simsion. The two narrators alternate to tell the story of two middle-aged, middle-class strangers who embark on the 2000km pilgrimage — called the Camino — from Cluny in France to Santiago de Com­postela in Spain.

In 2010 The Way (an American drama film directed, produced and written by Emilio Estevez) was released starring his father Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Yorick van Wageningen, and RenĂ©e Estevez.  It honoured the Camino de Santiago and promoted the traditional pilgrimage.  It was hugely popuar and inspired a great deal of 'walking' tourism in the region.  It has been said for centuries that walking “The Way’’ brings great positive, personal changes and an opportunity to reinvent oneself.
But for Biust's character, Zoe and Simsion's character, Martin walking is a personal and not so united experience.  She is grieving for her husband, who died only three weeks earlier.  Whilst he is recovering from a messy divorce and a strained relationship with his teenage daughter.

Martin is also motivated by another reason: he's engineered a prototype of a buggy designed specifically for long-distance walkers and plans to sell it to a German company. The 85 day/three-month journey is designed, in his mind at least, to test the efficacy of the buggy over rough terrain.

Right from the get-go it’s obvious that our two pilgrims are not the best matches - always the plot of the best RomCom's.  Zoe is a loud, upfront American (aren't they always?).  Martin is a reserved English gent.  She's a bit hippy-trippy and unsure if she truly wants to walk this trail.  Martin, on the other hand is an obsessive, over-prepared - he's even marked out his route on a GPS.  Zoe's on a limited budget and (at one point) must give massages to tourists to pay her way. He, on the other hand can afford fancy hotels and the best restaurants.  Like I said - perfect RomCom material.
Our story starts, as they both head out two days apart from one another.  They follow the ancient trail, in France, marked by scallop shells and, later, through Spain, lined with painted yellow arrows.

Throughout their pilgrimage, the paths of Zoe and Martin regularly cross, intersect and move away. Sometimes they'd at the same hostel or tapas bar.  At one point Martin saves Zoe from getting lost in a snow storm. At a later point he offers comfort her through her grief but through his bungling drives her further away.

Whenever a moment of intimacy arises, invariably the plot conspires to tear them apart.  For example, Zoe decides to remain behind at a certain town for spiritual reasons, to seek forgiveness from her dead mother, while Martin has no choice but to cary on.  Later, after reuniting, and their first kiss in a shared room, Zoe suffers a bout of food poisoning and spends the night in the bathroom, which Martin interprets as a form of rejection. Further on, Zoe receives some devastating news from home and flees their hotel, leaving only a brief written message for Martin: “Sorry”.

A few days later, Martin spies Zoe walking through a small town at night a young man.  Martin thinks the worst. Such misunderstandings and confusions sustain the story over  the whole 12 weeks of this book.

What's kind of neat, and obvious, I guess, given there are TWO writers, is the due narration technique employed here.  Zoe, being the artist, is is the more engaging one.  Her 'blog' approach takes in small details that Martin would miss.  Her eyes are focuses on the changes in the asthetics: “Leaving Grosbois, I found myself in a forest smelling of damp pine needles.  Tentacles of white mist wound between the dark avenues of trees, and the stillness was broken only by an occasional water drip or birdcall.”

On the other hand, Martin is obsessively practical, admitting he’s “not that observant”.  As the 'alpha' narrator he barely notices or describes anything with great detail.  He might as well be describing what he's read in a book, rather than his day to day life on the trip.  He uses cliche's instead of writing what he really thinks.  He calls Estaing a “most picturesque town”.  The village of Porte St Jacques is a “picture postcard town”.  His writing style seems to be completely lifted from Bradshaw's (Railway) Guide.

This book is littered with chances, first, second, missed and finally taken.  And peppered with amusing secondary characters, fellow travelers from all over the world also making the pilgrimage - a group of hard-partying Brazilian girls; a young German, Bernhard, who's primary aim is to 'bag' as many women as possible along the route so he can avoid spending on hostel fees and a lesbian couple who each day hitchhike back their mobile home every day.
It was kind of obvious that Simsion would create a 'person' like Don Tillman (The Rosie Project).  In that story our lead has 'designed' a Wife Project, using a sixteen-page questionnaire to help him find the perfect partner. She will most definitely not be a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.  Martin also uses spreadsheets and lists to achieve his aims.  But Zoe is not Rosie Jarman. Although she is still also fiery, intelligent and beautiful.  Again it's that mix of beauty and brains spun into a clash of wits.  Like the Camino de Santiago, there's not point to this story.  The enjoyment and the revelations are in the journey.

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