Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Three Authors, Two Books, One Cover

One of my recent reading themes: The Camino de Santiago. I'd like, at some point, to do an overview of Camino memoirs, but for the moment I think I'll stick with something a little more manageable: two books, The Year We Seized the Day (Elizabeth Best and Colin Bowles) and On Pilgrimage (Jennifer Lash). The pairing is somewhat arbitrary—it's just that the publishers used the exact same cover for both books, which are otherwise very different.

Some of these memoirs tend to run together a bit—the authors are following the same (literal) path, after all; there are many iterations of the same stories. The Year We Seized the Day is fairly standard as far as these things go, with a twist or two. It's a straight travel narrative (getting from one place to another; dealing with some personal struggles along the way), but written by two authors—which meant, in this case, both that we got to see two perspectives (rarely a bad thing) and that I liked one of those perspectives far more than the other.

I haven't read any of Colin Bowles's other works, but I'd read Elizabeth Best's previous memoir (and in fact reread it in November last year, on the same day that I did a 24-kilometer trial walk with gear). I can't say that I strongly recommend the first memoir (Eli's Wings), but this later work feels like she's done a great deal of growth as both a person and a writer. It also stands as an interesting contrast to Eli's Wings—in both she is effectively talking about breaking down her body, but for very different reasons and in very different contexts.

Lash's pilgrimage is different. She has neither the emotional demons that Bowles has to contend with nor the physical ailments that plague Best—at least, not exactly. Lash's pilgrimage was not solely one of the Camino: she ended up in Santiago, yes, but only after travelling through France to visit various holy spots; she took busses and trains and taxis rather than walking and was unconcerned with collecting stamps for a compostela.

It raises an intriguing question, one common to Camino memoirs—if all three are pilgrims, who among them is the 'truest' pilgrim? Some writers look down upon pilgrims who do not walk as they do (whether this means that the others bike, or walk only a hundred kilometers, or walk but have their bags taken by bus, or set foot in a vehicle themselves...); even those who do not mention how common a sort of...mostly benevolent animosity is.

Without placing such a value judgement (because really, it's silly), I'll say that they all had complications, reasons to claim (if they wanted it) the description of pilgrim. Best had a difficult time of it physically. Bowles had a lot of emotional things to work out (and perhaps, in that sense, the most to gain). Both Best and Bowles did the Camino as a long walk. But Lash—who didn't walk the Camino but nonetheless made a pilgrimage to Santiago—was the one who sought the most out of the Camino's religious (Catholic) history. She was also in remission from cancer at the time (and not always entirely comfortable physically), and though she doesn't talk much about that, it felt as though she knew this might be her last chance to visit these places.

Neither of these is my favourite of the Camino memoirs I've read. The Camino is a relatively small part of Lash's story, and I was less interested in the rest of it; I didn't love the two-author format of The Year We Seized the Day. But I love that, despite their near-identical covers, they represent such different takes on the same destination.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Catriona,
    Thanks for the review. I didn't realize there was another book out there with our cover - how interesting! I was interested to read your thoughts about TYWSTD on Goodreads also. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Happy reading!