Book review: Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion & Anne Buist

(cover image courtesy Text Publishing)

We talk about “finding yourself” so often these days, it sounds like it’s as simple as sitting somewhere far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, grabbing an existential map and going to places in your psyche that had hitherto eluded a visit.

It is, of course, a great deal more challenging than that, as anyone who has gone through the excoriating liberation of extended therapy will tell you, something that becomes obvious in the charming but brutally frank honesty of Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist (partners in life as well as writing)

A 2017 international bestseller that clearly resonated with a considerable number of people, Two Steps Forward centres on two seemingly disparate people, Zoe and Martin, who commit to separately walk the Camino aka The Way, a centuries-old pilgrimage trail through France and Spain, on which many people have found a clarity of purpose and insight that eluded them in the pulse and busyness of the day-to-day world.

They are, on the face of it, two very different souls.

American Zoe is at 45, a recent widow, reeling from the weeks-old death of her husband, a man who happily took on the role of stepfather when he became her husband and whose sudden absence has propelled into an impulsive course of action that leads her two adult daughters to assume she joined a cult.

She hasn’t, of course, she just needs to get away from the mess left behind by his untimely death and find out who she is away from being a wife, mum and partaker of life in the Californian fast lane.

“I [Zoe] pulled my case up the hill, hoping I hadn’t mixed up à droite and tout droit – right and straight ahead. I couldn’t get the scallop-shell charm out of my thoughts. Destiny speaks to those who choose to hear.

As I left the old part of town, I looked up. At the top of the hill there was a cemetery and, silhouetted against the darkening sky, a huge elm tree. Beneath it, a tall man was pulling what looked like a small horse buggy. It was a strange sight but his single wheel was doing better than mine, which chose that moment to break in two.” (P. 5)

Martin, on the other hand, hails from the UK, and is dealing with significant relationship issues of his own, which includes figuring out how to be better dad to 17-year-old Sarah.

Both of them are at the mother of all crossroads in their lives and uncertain about the next step forward.

Initially, Zoe is simply happy to go to France to meet up with her best friend Camille, but finds herself drawn to the Camino, as are so many others, and the chance it presents to possibly sort your proverbial out.

Zoe and Martin meet relatively quickly at the start of the almost 2000 km hike through all kinds of scenery and terrain – the Camino wends its often challenging way through mostly rural and coastal landscapes but also runs through some cities and towns, with pilgrims required to get a passport stamped at each stop to prove they have traversed its full length – with many fellow hikers walking at roughly the same time and pace, but their connection is not even remotely instantaneous.

In fact, it is far from the romantic comedy meet-cute you might expect, with Buist and Simsion deftly injecting a great deal of reality into a story which could have easily and simply been rendered as some sort of romance solves all story.

Anne Buist and Graeme Simsion (images courtesy Text Publishing)

Two Steps Forward is thankfully anything but.

While there is something delightfully escapist about those kinds of confected tales, going that route would have robbed this slow grower of a novel of much of its quiet power and impact.

Buist and Simsion take their unhurried narrative time taking us into the worlds of Zoe and Martin, offering us the chance to get to know them in almost the same real time way in which they come to discover their initial assumptions, and to be fair ongoing ones too, about each other were not even close to the truth.

Reflecting the slow but steady world in which traversing the Camino can change your life, Two Steps Forward takes its own gloriously sweet time in telling the story of Zoe and Martin, happy to let each day unfold at a pace that suits it and to let the characters come to know each other in a way that mirrors what might happen in real life.

With a keenly insightful and empathetic eye on the way in which grief and loss of all kinds can wildly and dramatically affect someone, and knowing all too well, that there are no magic wands waving around madly in life to fix that ails you instantly, the authors carefully unspool the engaging narrative of Two Steps Forward in a way that draws you in steadily page by beguiling page.

While you will be compelled to race through the book because it is so damn compellingly readable, Two Steps Forward is a charmingly comforting read with edge, a book that soothes as much as it challenges.

“There was an element of repetition about the walk. Every day finished with washing, eating, blogging, photo and video back-up, and battery charging. I [Martin] had bread and coffee for breakfast, fruit for morning and afternoon breaks, and the coarsest-grained bread I could find for lunch with tomatoes and salami or cheese. If there was no fridge, I parked my salami on the window sill overnight. I had a final checklist of stuff I ight have left lying around before departure: CPGS—computer, charger; passport, phone; GPS, guidebook; sticks, salami.” (P. 138)

The joy of reading it is that you often feel like you are on the Camino with Zoe and Martin, and the gloriously quirky ensemble of people who join them on the trail and become friends as much as fellow pilgrims.

Each chapter covers one stage or so of the journey from Cluny in France to Santiago in Spain, and with the authors have hiked the route, or parts thereof, on a few occasions, the story is richly informed with exactly it feels to push yourself way beyond your limits and comfort zone.

It is also, rather happily, full of some real world information though many of the restaurants and hostels are made up for narrative convenience, and gives you a palpable sense of what it might feel like to draw yourself out of the pell-mell of everyday life and lose yourself even as you hopefully find yourself in a world far removed from the busy urban-based life many of us pursue.

As Zoe and Martin come closer to finding out what they might want their future lives to look like, we journey every step of the way with them, fellow pilgrims who experience all the successful steps forward and the dispiriting steps back, and how finding yourself, whatever that might look like, can often finding others too.

Quite whether Zoe and Martin do find each other is best left to the reading but suffice to say that watching them hike their way into a clearer sense of self and into each other’s lives, is a fulfilling undertaking, one of those rare moments where even as you read in the midst of your busy ordinary life, you get a real, palpable sense of what it might be like, to disengaged, place the cacophony of the rat race in neutral and step back and see your life anew and wonder, as you put one foot in front of the other, where life might take you mext.

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