Two Steps Forward is a novel written by Australian husband and wife author team, Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist. When Zoe and Martin arrive in France, neither of them does so with the Camino de Santiago in mind. Engineer, Dr Martin Eden has just gone through an acrimonious divorce, giving up his home and job for a temporary teaching position in Cluny. An aspiring artist whose fledgling career was aborted by marriage and the birth of her two (now adult) daughters, Zoe Witt is a recent widow. Her husband’s sudden death brought some unpleasant surprises and she’s in Cluny looking up a college friend while she comes to terms with her grief and life’s new realities.
Somewhat uncomfortable with her friend’s matchmaking efforts, and feeling the need for solitude, Zoe surprises herself with a decision to walk the Chemin from Cluny to the Spanish border. Martin’s impetus is far from spiritual: after a chance encounter with a Dutch pilgrim, he is going to road-test a pilgrim cart he has designed and hopes to sell; in fact, needs to sell as he is jobless, homeless and penniless! And with a seventeen-year-old daughter about to attend university.
As their paths cross and recross, American Zoe and British Martin, along with a bunch of Brazilians, Germans and other Americans, go (despite some friction and/or frisson) from strangers to a camaraderie (and occasionally, something more) that seems not uncommon with those sharing this life-changing experience.
There’s plenty of humour in the dialogue and the interactions between characters: miscommunications, misunderstandings and omissions of the whole truth, as well as a bit of (almost) slapstick comedy add to the enjoyment. The male and female voices are well rendered, and the story also illustrates the wide spectrum of pilgrims attracted to Camino, with their myriad of reasons for walking.
Buist and Simsion give the reader a tale about a group of ordinary people with ordinary life problems who discover that often best advice comes from strangers whose perspective is not coloured by emotions. The “spiritual journey” aspect is well handled, never becoming overwhelming or heavy on “message” but still given enough gravitas to be thought-provoking. The only things missing from this delightful novel are the images of Zoe’s cartoons and Martin’s cart. Very entertaining!