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When to Walk
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From Publishers Weekly
British writer Gowers follows her nonfiction work on Victorian criminals, The Swamp of Death, with a fictive weeklong journey inside the head of Ramble, a London woman quietly going crazy. Handicapped, partially deaf Ramble provides first-person narration that careens from her thoughts on photocopying pound notes to her grandmother's childhood to 1840s Stamp Office clerks with barely a breath. When husband Con calls her an autistic vampire and takes off with the petty criminal living downstairs, Ramble comes unglued, and the narrative goes along with her: Remedial wise, give HER! The short shrift treatment NOW! And in a few days hence you will be beholding to no one: a law unto yourself. Oh yes! While several quirky characters - particularly Stella, Ramble's dementia-suffering grandmother, and Johnson Pike, her childhood friend-are well imagined, Ramble's voice isn't enough to hold the book together as she flies apart. (Oct.)
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"By far the best novel I've read this year. Rebecca is a genius."
"Brilliant . . . It is by turns hilarious and poignant, and shot through with a love of words. . . . There is an emotional wallop lurking in all the witty disquisitions. . . . Unforgettable."
"Gowers's debut novel is a mercurial delight, a humorous romp spiked with the unpredictable and the darkly comic. . . . Ramble's mind fascinates and charms. . . . It feels as if she is stretching out a hand of friendship to the reader. . . . Gowers's heartfelt novel is the perfect read for those bored with the current surfeit of cliche-ridden chick lit."
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What's most surprising is what the blurbs DON'T say: namely, how extraordinarily FUNNY the book is! Ramble, deaf in one ear and with "a dysfunctional pelvis", has a mind that's both brilliant and bent; her attention to detail is almost panoptical, and her tendency towards digression, reflection, and bewildering interpretation is no less hysterical than it is astounding. Her internal dialogue can make the strangest sidesteps - as when the sudden appearance of someone surprises her, and she promptly recalls the earliest OED citation (c. 1513) of the word "wow".
This is the tenor of the novel's narration, and you'll either love it or hate it. The lunchtime pronouncement is a clear illustration, as it's NOT what the husband said, so much as her instant rewording: "He didn't put it like this, didn't use either of the words I'm about to use, but I found he was telling me that in the person of his wife, I have degraded into an autistic vampire." She's incredibly intelligent, possibly gifted, hopelessly internal in her workings, and one gets the sense of her being slightly surprised by most everything - if only for a second. At one point her husband complains that she spends too much time inside her own head, and we're annoyed to concede that he might have a point. (Not that this makes him any less of a bastard.)
The novel takes place over a single week - each of the seven chapters comprising a single day - and, given the kind of story it is, doesn't have the greatest amount of plot. This has seemingly frustrated some readers, but I had no quarrel with that fact; Ramble's character and voice are such a singular mixture of ridiculous and affecting, that my only complaint was that it ended at all: I gladly would have read many more weeks' worth of her strange and comical misadventures.
When to Walk is Rebecca Gowers' first novel, and it's an astonishing debut. I'll be anxiously awaiting her second.
It recounts events on a daily basis after her useless husband has abandoned her (or has he really?) in an inner city slum and her contacts with her equally lumpenproletariat neighbors. I got through Saturday and Sunday with her but could not face Monday morning and a full working week of memories, incidents and observations that I imagine are supposed to be meaningful but were not to me.