Book Review: “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

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My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I hast tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, remind me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

3 Reviews!

I failed to post a review during February, so have three to make up for it:

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I hast tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, remind me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunionIn the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophyDoes what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses were likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness, for example? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Studying Socrates and Pyrrho give you a flavour of philosophical thought, but their insights are unlikely to impact on modern day life. Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.

Book Review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London

By Andrew Taylor

ashes-of-londonIt’s 1666 and the Great Fire of London is raging, but bodies are being found that have nothing to do with the flames. The burnt landscape of 17th century London is wonderfully grimy and decadent. Through the eyes of young Whitehall clerk, James Marwood and Catherine Lovett, the disgraced daughter of a once rich Regicide, we see people from all walks of life.

The charred London landscape is made richer by plenty of well researched history into the political landscape. Charles II is still dealing with the aftermath of his father’s execution and the disaster of Oliver Cromwell’s rule. There are still those who think of Charles II as a usurper; those who still await the return of the true king – King Jesus. Such believers, known as Fifth Monarchists, were supporters of Charles I’s execution, and have all but disappeared since the fall of Cromwell. Though most were pardoned by the new King, those men considered to be instrumental in his father’s death, have been charged of treason and sentenced to death.

James Marwood’s father was lucky and escaped execution. Catherine Lovett’s father is still on the run. Now, more and more of Lovett’s friends are turning up dead. And Catherine and James’ lives are getting more and more complicated. Cat and Marwood are complete strangers to one another and their individual plots run parallel throughout the novel, almost crossing many times. By keeping them divided, their apprehension (and therefore ours) keeps mystery, confusion and foreknowledge at the edge of the frame. These sensations – like the characters – chase, run and hide from each other constantly. While Taylor’s imagery isn’t the best, his plot development is first-rate. This is a novel chock-full of action and plot twists. Together with a hearty dollop of political intrigue, you are compelled to keep turning the pages.

“Dear God, I thought, my life is haunted by these religious fools.”

Review: “The Tobacconist” by Robert Seethaler

The Tobacconist

By Robert Seethaler

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The Tobacconist is Robert Seethaler’s new release, following his Man Booker Shortlisted novel, A Whole Life (2016) (click here for my review of A Whole Life). I adored A Whole Life and was very eager to get going with Seethaler’s new novel when I got wind of its publication.

Vienna is on the brink of World War II. The city and its people are still recovering from the previous war, but Hitler’s influence is spreading and a restless populace is growing evermore so. Franz Huchel, a naive teenager from the salt mines, has been sent to work as an apprentice in a tobacconist’s. Franz’s employer, Otto Trysnyek, is a veteran, having lost a leg back in the war. He lives a simple and honest life and finds an unexpected ally in his dedicated apprentice. The tobacconist shop is the social equaliser: cigarettes and cigars, newspapers and pinup girls in a private drawer; everyone has their usual order, even a certain Jewish psychologist by the name of Freud.

As “Heil Hilter!” becomes a more regular greeting around the city, the lives of Otto, Franz and Freud grow ever more challenging. By the time his apprenticeship ends, Franz will be a boy no longer. He’ll learn about friendship, love and respect in a city about to be overrun by hate and fear.

“Maybe that’s it, he thought: just stop and stand here like this and never move again. Then time would drift past you, you wouldn’t have to swim with it or struggle against it.”

Now, I’ll be honest, it’s nowhere near as good as A Whole Life. But then I have put that book on something of a pedestal, so I had a lot of expectations going in. Seethaler’s stoic yet emotive description that so captured me before makes sporadic appearances but not nearly enough, in The Tobacconist. However, the characterisation and the plot development are more reminiscent of the writing I remember. Seethaler’s success is in taking everyday people with extraordinary struggles and infusing them with quiet strength. It is the noble example his characters set that I hope will continue to make his novels worth seeking out.

Georgie Matthews Review for A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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Books of the Year 2016

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I didn’t start this blog a couple of years ago intending for it to be enitrely made of book reviews, but having started working in a bookshop in January, I have posted at least one book review a month this year. So I thought it was only right, having come to the end of 2016, that I give you my top 5. So in no particular order…

A Whole Life

By Robert Seethaler

Genre: Fiction
Published: 2014

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Review: “…A whole life in less than 150 pages. As you read, the sense of empathy settles quietly within, without your noticing and Egger, though often a stranger within his own story, is not a stranger to you for long…more

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

Genre: Fiction
Published: 2005

the book thief

Review: “…Germany is in the hands of the Führer, and Liesel Meminger is a book thief. Both Hitler and Liesel know that words have power. Words can save a person’s soul or inspire people to do unspeakable things…more

Golden Hill

By Francis Spufford

Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 2016

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Review: “…A glittering gem of a book, this historical New York adventure satisfies every requirement for a fantastic novel. Language that glitters and glides across every page…more

Smoke

By Dan Vyleta

Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Published: 2016

smoke dan vyleta

Review: “..His world is wreathed in the so-called Smoke: the physical manifestation of sin. But if one Smokes when one feels love, lust, pain, is it really as simple as that?…more

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2007

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Review: “…The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is surely a fantasy for adults. The most sophisticated of its kind I have come across. The language is rich and beautiful and the world Patrick Rothfuss has lent himself to flourishes under his care…more

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Review: “The Child That Books Built” by Francis Spufford

The Child That Books Built

By Francis Spufford

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Possibly even the best. Spufford’s masterful storytelling and delicious, effusive creations captured my imagination in every possible way. Sensuous experience, corporeal characters, and a plot that transports and invigorates its reader; Golden Hill is the kind of book that forces any reviewer into excessively compounded, erudite sentences. This book is awesome.

I’m not even reviewing Golden Hill  and I have fallen into raptures (click here for my review). But to segue, the reason I am now reviewing The Child That Books Built is because of Golden Hill. I couldn’t get enough of Spufford’s voice. I read GH and immediately went in search of more.

To my dismay, Spufford has yet to publish any more fiction. The title I settled upon, therefore, is a biography. I am not, generally speaking, a non-fiction reader and have never read a biography cover-to-cover before. Needless to say my Spufford infatuation has changed that.

This book is precisely what it says on the tin – The Child That Books Built is about how books were his friends and teachers as he grew up. Interspersed with light psychology (which I am partial to), some frank confessions and plenty of books, all in fabulous Spufford style. Entire passages deserve to be read aloud and I did just that. My colleague was much bemused to find me sat alone on the work sofa reading to myself.

“We can remember readings that acted like transformations. There were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed. Suddenly a thousand crystals of perception of our own formed, the original insight of the story ordering whole arrays of discoveries inside us, into winking accuracy.”

The title of this book, unlike many books, sums up the content admirably. Titles often outright ignore their purpose of being informative, something Spufford discovered to his frustration as he got older:

“If a children’s book was called The Blue Hawk, it would have a hawk that was blue in it … Perfectly straightforward. Adult authors, on the other hand, seemed to be constitutionally incapable of giving a book a truthful name. … The Centaur did not contain a centaur: it turned out to be just some bloody metaphor.”

Spufford’s voice perfectly combines observational humour and gently fluttering revelations, making his experience universally empathetic for book lovers. He recounts and relives his experiences of literature as a child, re-reading his favourites as he writes the book. His enthusiasm is contagious and one could not be blamed for seeking out all the books he rhapsodises throughout – from the magic of Narnia and The Hobbit, to action packed James Bond, to the eloquent sci-fi of Ursula Le Guin, to metafictional Herman Hesse, a lifetime of books. A love story, an addiction that persists and experiences that fuse with one’s very being.

 “It is the directions [books] can point us in that we value – and then the way those interact deep down in our reading minds with the directions our own temperaments are tentatively taking.”

“When a fiction does trip a profound recognition … the reward is more than an inert item of knowledge. The book becomes part of the history of our self-understanding. The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own.”

This adult was built by books and I hope I am too.

“Nod” by Adrian Barnes – Book Review

Nod

Adrian Barnes

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“Nod” is a dystopian sci-fi set in Vancouver, Canada.

One morning, Paul wakes from a beautiful dream to learn that no one else slept the night before. And this happened everywhere, all around the world. Apart from a few individuals, no one sleeps from that day on.

Biology continues in every other way and the countdown is on for when the human race can no longer survice without sleep. Paul however, who still sleeps, must be a sober witness to his world going mad. His wife is losing her mind and everything he once held dear is disintergrating. People begin to turn on each other and factions start appearing. New religions and new theories are emerging; the world is a new and terrifying place. Chaos reigns.

But what of people like Paul, who still sleep and dream? And then there are the children who dream and sleep. They have stopped talking and isolated themselves from the chaos. They smile and play and seem to have a world of their own. What will be their future?

Barnes raises many questions in this novel, and with his protagonist being a writer, he is well placed for some existential indulgence. There are some obscure literary references – not quite enough to alienate this particular reader though I suspect others might find it jarring.

“During my time in Nod, I came to believe that if something can be imagined it must be possible. Want proof? We imagined space flight, then it happened for real. We imagined holograms and they happened too… So is a Rice Christian or a Blemmye or a burning ice cube or a green sun or a widowed scarecrow just some meaningless assemblage of sounds and letters? Or, in some way, are they all real? Wow, I’m really babbling here in Babylon, holed up in my tower of words.”

Overall, I found this novel to be a bit disappointing. There is a lot of potential in the ideas expressed but instead of resolving these issues, they are left completely open ended. I’m all for literature making one think more deeply about the world and our fellow humans and I’m not asking for all the answers to be handed to me. But I feel the novel would have benefited from a little more direction if it is to be regarded as a successful story and not just an exploration of ideas.

Review: “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall

The Well of Loneliness

By Radclyffe Hall

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“The Well of Loneliness” is not to be read lightly, for its title does not exaggerate. It is tragic and powerful; it shudders with empathy and spiritual resilience.

First published in 1928, it tells the tale of Miss Stephen Gordon: a woman who identifies as a man, who loves other women and must suffer the condemnation of all for her “abnormality”. Incredibly ahead of its time, as far as public opinion was concerned, it was the subject of an obscenity trial at the time of publication. It was published in the same year as D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”. Hall was part of an oncoming wave that rose in the years that followed World War I. It was a wave that saw taboos transforming from absolutes into debatable ideas, and – even more importantly – it was a wave that streamed into the public forum. Ideologies, and the courage of those who lived them, were coming to bear against received wisdom.

“As though gaining courage from the terror that is war, many a one who was even as Stephen, had crept out of her hole and come into the daylight, come into the daylight and faced her country: ‘Well, here I am, will you take me or leave me?’”

The scope and breadth of this highly empathetic and emotional work is without compare. It crosses a number of social boundaries. It begins in the well-to-do grounds of Morton, the home of Stephen’s father, Sir Philip Gordon. We then travel with Stephen to the front lines of the First World War, where she becomes an ambulance driver. Then, the war over, back to Paris, where Stephen mixes with the greats and the groundlings of society’s so-called “inverts”. Having made a name for herself as an author, she is privy to a very exclusive circle. Stephen meets many prominent men and women of cultured society, including writers, poets and artists whose characters often have real life counterparts. From a young child to a middle aged woman, Stephen’s life is a landscape and a broad reel of life, love and loss.

Stephen’s life has many ups and downs, but it cannot be denied that tragedy has the final word. Radclyffe Hall – christened Marguerite – is quite clearly writing from personal experience and Stephen Gordon is modelled on herself. Existential turmoil and fear of and anger against public opinion battle vehemently with pride and courage.

“She would clench her hands in a kind of fury. How long was this persecution to continue? How long would God sit still and endure this insult offered to His creation? How long tolerate the preposterous statement that inversion was not part of nature? For since it existed what else could it be? All things that existed were a part of nature?”

Courage does not win very much in this novel; it is a thoroughly depressing read. But it is so wholly courageous and forward thinking when hope does make its sporadic appearances.

“We’re all part of nature. Some day the world will recognize this, but meanwhile there’s plenty of work that’s waiting. For the sake of all the others who are like you but less strong and less gifted perhaps, many of them, it’s up to you to have the courage to make good.”

The most readable sections of the novel are those set in the grounds of Morton with the young Stephen. Pastoral descriptions are full of English pride and a liberating sense of natural freedom. Stephen is at her most free when she gallops across green hills and fields with her faithful horse Raftery.

“The gardens lay placidly under the snow, in no way perturbed or disconcerted. Only one inmate of theirs felt anxious, and that was the ancient and wide-boughed cedar, for the weight of the snow made an ache in its branches … But it could not cry out or shake off its torment.”

These early episodes make wholesome use of natural metaphors that are infinitely more successful than the later episodes contained within inner-city Paris. The gay bars that Stephen and her partner Mary frequent later in the novel are dirty and degrading and Stephen is appalled that she must be forced to mix with the people for whom life has “at last stamped under; who, despised of the world, must despise themselves beyond all hope, it seemed, of salvation.” They are described as “haunted”, “tawdry” and “shabby” and it is sections like these that betray a hint of classist bias.

Maureen Duffy, in her introduction to the novel, expresses it thus: “The Well certainly has its shortcomings both as a work of literature and as an apologia for a homosexual way of life and love; nevertheless, for decades these have been outweighed for many readers by the novel’s mere existence in telling them that they were not alone, and by the courage of its author in both writing and defending it.”

“I am one of those who God marked on the forehead. Like Cain, I am marked and blemished. If you come to me, Mary, the world will abhor you, will persecute you, will call you unclean. Our love may be faithful even unto death and beyond – yet the world will call it unclean. We may harm no living creature by our love, we may grow more perfect in understanding and in charity because of our loving, but all this will not save you from the scourge of a world that will turn away its eyes from your noblest actions, finding only corruption and vileness in you. … And when you come to me for protection, I shall say: ‘I cannot protect you, Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless, I can only love you.’”

Review: “The Sunlight Pilgrims” by Jenni Fagan

The Sunlight Pilgrims

by Jenni Fagan

sunlight pilgrimsA wonderful story of humanity at its most pragmatic and enigmatic.

Set in 2020, Earth is about to have the worst winter since records began and they fear a new ice age is on the way. After the death of his mother and grandmother, Dylan moves to the foot of the Scottish Highlands, into the caravan that is his only inheritance. In the caravan park, Dylan meets Constance and her teenage daughter, Stella, who was her teenage son less than a year ago.

As the snow gets heavier and the temperature drops, the world is a whole new place – both beautiful and dangerous. In spite of the icy backdrop, an unlikely family unit is created, and their struggle to ward off the cold imparts the story with warmth of another kind.

“To lie like this. Let the snow fall out there. There is an ordinariness to their strange.”

The writing style took me a couple of chapters to get used to, but once I did, I found it to be very effective. The balance of pragmatic and enigmatic was like a kite flying up high but still pinned safely to the ground. The brilliant mix of raw, ethereal imagery and curt, dead-pan humour is simply brilliant. This tantalising combination is embodied in the teenage Stella.

“Our cells crave light because that is what we started as, it’s what we are. All humans are sunlight pilgrims. Except me. Cos I’m a goth. I could totally live without light.”

Stella’s character is sensitively drawn, particularly with reference to her alternative gender identity. It is important to recognise that she does not struggle with her identity, but rather laments that everyone else does, including her father and the boy next door.

“Outside there is a blue, blue sky and frost has dusted the Clachan Fells mountains silver. Stella Fairbairn feels like she is going to cry, and nobody is even up yet. She is a swan wrapped in cellophane and everyone can see through her skin. Lewis will never kiss her again. She might as well forget it. She isn’t pretty, and she’s angular, and she has a penis.”

And then there is Dylan, a man who loves a woman and her child. But struggles with a secret he doesn’t know how to share.

These “normal” concerns, by comparison with the apocalyptic approach of a modern ice age, are what fill the narrative with a palpable sense of humanity. Rather than focusing on the potential drama and jeopardy of the oncoming storm that would turn it into an action film, Fagan uses it as a way to bring out the beauty and fragility of the human experience. The quiet yearnings for a normal life far outshine all other fears. And this is a heartening, noble message. Ultimately, when we are faced with potentially insurmountable odds, all we can do is carry on living. Fall in love, fancy the boy next door, have a gin and grieve our mothers.

“The urge in him to lie with her in the dark and hold her. To drink wine and read books and ignore each other, but her foot just by his, her legs, her mouth.”

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce – Review

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

By Rachel Joyce

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Harold Fry is now an old man. He’s lead an unremarkable life and never really committed to anything. He lives with his wife Maureen. They drifted apart a long time ago. Their son left a long time ago. And a long time ago, a simple, kind woman named Queenie Hennessy did Harold a big favour that he never thanked her for. One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie. She’s dying from cancer. Harold writes a letter, walks down the road to the letterbox and keeps walking. He will walk to Queenie Hennessy. From his home in Kingsbridge on the south coast to Queenie’s bedside in Berwick-on-Tweed on the Scottish border. 500 miles, he would walk; he would say thank you, he would save Queenie’s life. He believed in something for the first time in a very long time and gave others something to believe in too. As Harold walked, and as Maureen and Queenie waited, each would share in his pilgrimage and find comfort, courage and relief.

Rachel Joyce’s book is utterly moving, but equally full of joy, charm and humour. When Harold starts walking, he is an introverted, lonely, apathetic man. But the more he walks, the more he opens himself to the world around him. From the simple joy of walking through green fields, to his belief in the kindness of strangers, Harold finds so much to be thankful for.

“He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”

After he unwittingly shares his story with a journalist, Harold’s pilgrimage becomes national news. Other everyday people, with their own everyday problems are inspired by Harold and go in search of him, believing that they too might find some relief, if only they can achieve something.

“They believed in him. They had looked at him in his yachting shoes, and listened to what he said, and they had made a decision in their hearts and minds to ignore the evidence and imagine something bigger and something infinitely more beautiful than the obvious.”