“Wherever you travel you always take yourself with you” word by Neil Gaiman, but very relevant to Natalie. They describe the heart of her problem. Disillusioned with her life, she decides to travel. But she is always there. A sharp, clear-eyed examination of how we cannot get away from ourselves, no matter how hard we try.
At the pool, I dive in and realize I’ve never been this heavy before. I tread the water. My body has made me feel ugly.
No. I made myself feel ugly. My body is getting all this attention.
I got this one from Books that Matter and it is one more reason why I love this subscription box. They always send me books I would never think of buying, books that push me out of my comfort zone and make me think. Receiving their boxes is always a great surprise.
Our narrator here is Natalie. She is Irish, and we meet her when she’s in Bali, having just abandoned her job as a teacher and her life in general. Embarking on this cliche quest of finding herself. Or maybe attempting to abandon herself really. Either way it is not working. Natalie is so uncomfortable with herself that it affects every facet of her life and travel. And whenever things get too stressful she compulsively overeats (a trait I found very relatable).
From Bali she travels to Australia and New Zealand, staying nowhere for long and not being able to find her place. Drifting. She meets people along the way, actually, we can feel how she is drawn to them, but then her awkwardness takes over and things fall to pieces again. After coming back to Ireland she lives for a while with her grandmother and it seems she finds some level of stability. Living in a small community, close to nature, having a very basic job and dipping her toes in being a spinning class instructor. But again things brutally fall apart.
This cycle of one step forward two steps back continues as we follow Natalie in more travels. And it seems there is no hope, but what it does make you realize at one point is that one step forward and two back is still better than just two steps back.
It is not a book about miraculous healing and recovery. It is a book about a struggle to climb out of a hole. A very deep one. It hurts and is not pretty. There are no great bounds to happiness. Toil is probably the word for it.
And despite that, I loved this book. It’s been ages since I felt so comfortable with a book and a character from the first page. I wanted to be with Natalie, even when she was being a bitch or failed miserably. I wanted to go through all this with her. Throughout the pandemic, there have been very few books that I found difficult to put down. And this is one of them. There is something enchanting about Natalie’s honest voice, her fragility, but also her penchant for freaking out or lash out to protect herself. She is very human in all her failings. And not hero-human, just human-human.
She hates herself, and this makes her weird with people. But she is reaching out for connection, she does not isolate herself. As if somewhere at the bottom of her heart there was always this hope that people can make her better. She looks for connection, even if it is passing and random. And that’s another interesting trait, she doesn’t cling, because her life feels so unmoored she accepts the passing relationships that come with traveling.
It did make me think about the expectations we set ourselves and how unforgiving we often are. We forgive other people’s flaws but never our own. For some reason, we acknowledge that no one else is perfect, but we have to be perfect. And this makes us feel miserable. What I loved about this book is that despite the dreary topic it still had this sense of calm and optimism, without being silly and sentimental. A true balancing act.
The majority of people will not know someone’s insecurity until the person tells them. Flags it themselves. Be confident, Natalie, and they will not notice.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska