Pilgrimage. It seems rather a quaint, old-fashioned sort of word in our mostly secular world, doesn’t it? Over on my travel blog I make jocular references to the pilgrimages The Spouse and I make as tourists: as ArtLovers, LitLovers, MusicLovers and ScienceLovers. We visit the resting place or monuments of our heroes in these categories or we hunt out their places of residence or inspiration, as if by some osmosis we can connect with the genius of these people that we admire long after they are dead and in spite of the kitsch commercialism which often surrounds the site. We pay homage to their work and enjoy the sense of ‘being there’.
But real pilgrimage has religious associations. For Muslims there is the Hajj, which from the TV images I’ve seen look noisy and frighteningly chaotic, but friends who’ve done it came back from the experience spiritually refreshed and with a sense of completion about a religious obligation. Christian pilgrimages conjure up images of the faithful plodding along a dusty road somewhere in Spain or Italy, and this too can lead to a sense of serenity and renewed purpose in life, as described by Tony Kevin in Walking the Camino (also published by Scribe).
Jacinta Halloran’s new book Pilgrimage is about the kind of pilgrimage where believers kneel quietly in prayer in a grove or grotto where there has been a visitation of Jesus, Mary or a saint. These pilgrimages always seem to take place somewhere remote but always picturesque. (I’m not aware of any visitations happening in dull suburbs, train stations, supermarkets or on the factory floor). The novel is Halloran’s second, and it’s very satisfying reading, every bit as good as the highly acclaimed Dissection. (See my review).
I liked it because it explores all kinds of moral ambiguities: it would make an excellent choice for book groups because it offers so much to think and talk about. Celeste is a middle-aged paediatrician with a firmly held secular-scientific view of the world who is suddenly confronted by her mother’s desire to make a pilgrimage to Romania, seeking a miracle cure for her terminal illness. Her mother is a devout Catholic, and she believes that by travelling to the (fictional) village of Nicula, she will be saved from an awful death from motor neurone disease.
Despite her rejection of religion and her professional distress about encouraging false hopes, Celeste finds herself accompanying her mother and her flighty younger sister Nathalie on this pilgrimage. It becomes a journey of self-discovery as Celeste confronts her own inner demons: her grief about her childlessness, her ambivalence about her marriage, her frustrations with her sister, and her unresolved anger about her stepfather. (No, it’s not a child abuse issue). Her childhood experiences have made Celeste a strong, determined woman with a rational view of the world, but she’s pugnacious about what she thinks is ‘blind faith’ and her scepticism makes her suspicious of the motives of others. She has a strong sense of duty, but she’s a bit of a martyr about it. This characterisation makes for absorbing reflections as Celeste struggles with her ambivalence about the pilgrimage, her family and her own identity; and it generates interesting interactions with the other characters in the novel, including the enigmatic tour guide, Stefan.
Halloran’s dissection of the relationship between mother and daughter is masterly, and it’s characterised by the same disappointment as Celeste’s ambivalent attitude towards the little sister that she mothered. These people love each other, but things haven’t turned out the way that Celeste would like. And for all that her husband Tom is sketched as a good and kindly man (too saintly, perhaps?) Celeste’s marriage is a disappointment too.
Talking about this book Pilgrimage with a friend, we were both reminded of Enza Gandolfo’s debut novel Swimming, which is also a meditation on the identity of a middle-aged childless professional woman. In different ways, these novels explore the reflections of first generation feminists, childless women who pursued careers in a way that was not possible before the 1970s.
I expect to see Pilgrimage shortlisted for any number of awards. Halloran is on her way to becoming one of our major authors.
See Jane Sullivan’s interview with Jacinta Halloran at the SMH.
Author: Jacinta Halloran
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe