A pilgrimage along an ancient road, from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the site of a shrine to the Apostle James.
Having trekked 283 kilometers of the route three years earlier, novelist Harrison (The Seal Wife, 2002, etc.) returns for a second trip with her 12-year-old daughter. On both journeys, she endures the burden of a heavy pack and temperamental weather, blisters, thirst, and fatigue, finding little relief in spartan meals and accommodations along the way. This account of discomfort, though, is rather matter-of-fact, and the author does little to offset any of it with those transcendent moments that make travel—and travel-writing—engaging and worthwhile. Harrison's capable writing is flattened by her emotional evenness; her meditative detachment, perhaps a spiritual achievement appropriate to the milieu, results in a muted account that lacks passion. Harrison's occasional reflections on mortality, fear, and family outshine her encounters with locals and descriptions of place, but she doesn't contemplate anything too deeply or for too long. When, after days of eating, sleeping, and walking alongside her daughter, it occurs to Harrison that she's almost intimidated by her child: “her beauty and her silences, her ability to wound me.” But she doesn't pursue the revelation or use it to lessen the distance between them or to better understand its nature. Also missing is any substantive discussion of Harrison's faith. Her Catholicism is hardly traditional: raised by Jewish grandparents and schooled by Christian Scientists, she converted to Catholicism at 12, married a Quaker, and never baptized her children. On this trek through holy ground, she neglects to discuss her enduring faith, its role in her life, or how (and if at all) she intends to pass it on to her children.
Lucid, readable prose but, as travelogue, neither transporting nor insightful. (map)