I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the term “women’s fiction” and what is meant by it – is it fiction where the protagonist is a woman, where the author is a woman, which deals with “female themes”? Why does such a term exist?
One publisher who tackles the term head-on and without mercy is Virago, which publishes great books by women, but which couldn’t be classed as women’s fiction, since the term is meaningless and would do Virago’s selection of work down.
Coming to Virago’s incredibly strong list (Virago is Maya Angelou’s UK publisher) this year is Rachel Sieffert, a Man Booker-shortlisted author. I confess I’d not read her previous novels, The Dark Room and Afterwards, so I had few expectations or ideas about what I was getting.
In The Walk Home, set in Glasgow, “now or thereabouts”, a young man called Stevie gets a job on a construction site a few miles down the road from his family, but none of them know he’s back. In the early 1990s, Stevie’s parents Graham and Lindsey meet and move to Glasgow to be close to Graham’s parents.
The Walk Home is not a book where something happens, and then is resolved, and there is an ending, but it is a book about something happening, and the consequences of that. It’s a book about how the past can haunt families, even without their consciously realising that the mistakes of the people before are what is damaging the present.
In the present, most of what we see of Stevie is through the eyes of Polish construction manager Jozef, an immigrant to Glasgow whose life is affected by his move to a strange country, his ties to his family and his struggle to fit in with the culture he’s left behind, and the culture he’s moved into. Jozef’s story mirrors the story of Stevie’s mum, Lindsey, who moved from Ireland for a better life, but finds that it catches her up in Glasgow in ways she never imagined.
We don’t spend an awful lot of time with present-day Stevie, but we do spend a lot of time with Stevie as he grows up, and our relationship with him is built on what we know about his upbringing, which shaped him into the human being he is today. His relationships with his parents and grandparents are key to this, but so are the relationships of the people in his life to each other – they affect him just as deeply as those he is directly a part of.
The most fascinating character in The Walk Home is Graham’s maternal uncle Eric, whose past life choices have affected the dynamic of his whole family. From his sister Brenda, to his nephew George, to Lindsey and then finally to Stevie, Eric acts as a warning, a threat and a comfort all in one.
Love is at the centre of The Walk Home – love between siblings, love between a husband and wife, and most importantly love between parents and their children. That last one is at the heart of what happens to and forms each character – starting from how the love between Eric and his father was not enough to sustain their relationship, going through to Brenda and Lindsey creating a mother-daughter love, to Stevie being abandoned by his mother despite his love for her.
The only thing I found awkward about The Walk Home was the Glaswegian accent used for the speech. Reading it, I found it very difficult to hear in my head, and it was only occasionally I could hear the right voice. Most of the time, I just gave up and read it as it would have been without the dialect.
Apart from that, The Walk Home was a moving read. Sieffert has captured a portrait of a family affected by love and loss perfectly, and despite how sad it is, I’m left with hope at the end of the novel that the walk home will be completed.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Virago. This did not affect my review.