Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2018

How to Walk Away (2015), by Lisa Birman

I discovered Lisa Birman’s How to Walk Away at the biennial Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival in 2016 when I attended a session for debut authors.  Although it won the Colorado Book Award that year, it’s not a book that’s had a great deal of attention either here in Australia (where Birman was born and educated) or in the USA (where she teaches creative writing for most of the year, coming home for the warmth of an Aussie summer).  And yet it’s a stunning novel, one that deserves to be widely read.

It’s narrated almost entirely by Otis, a veteran of the Afghan war and struggling with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with survivor guilt and with his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  After intensive therapy in childhood he had learned to control his obsessions, but the OCD has resurfaced with the trauma of war and he is floundering with the adjustment back to life at home as a civilian.

Rodney Hall’s most recent novel A Stolen Season (2018) traverses similar territory (see my review) but Hall’s central character Adam is catastrophically wounded and the focus of the novel is also on his wife and how their failing marriage comes under enormous strain when everyone expects her to be supportive.  Birman’s character has no obvious injuries and because he looks the same as he did before he went away, he makes valiant efforts to be ‘normal’.   But when the novel opens, it is obvious that all is not well: it is not just that he is obsessively counting things, but also that there are silences in his marriage.

Cat is a genealogist, and she makes her living constructing family trees for clients.  She made one for Otis while he was away in Afghanistan:

She wanted to send it to me but I asked her not to.  I was already in Afghanistan and I didn’t know how to keep it safe without her.  She was my map and I asked her to keep it with her until I got home.  It wasn’t what she intended but I think she liked it.  She sent me a photocopy with one of her letters and I touched each name to make it real.  I counted all the people, seventy-two, and all the names, one hundred and seventy-seven.  I counted all the lines and added all the dates.  The last date was our wedding.  2000.  Right next to the line that joined her name to mine.

I told her that for our next anniversary we should make another map.  Fill out her hemispheres.  It was strange to have everything leading up to me and just her name attached like she didn’t have a history.  I could hear the statis at the other end of the line.  We didn’t talk about it again. (p.3)

The reader soon learns that Otis is disorientated because not everything is as it was when he left.  He had been warned that returning is not easy:

They tell you the return will not be as kind as the leaving.

Which comes as a shock at the time.  Usually in the midst of leaving.  Imagining ourselves in the worst of it.  Because it is not possible in that exact moment to think of dipping lower.  Because we know the possible ending and cannot think ourselves there.

And so to hear that a safe return still falters, it doesn’t seem real. Maybe that’s how it is for other people, you think. Probably they already had problems.  But that’s not us,  you tell yourself.  We were good and are good and will be better after this. (p.6)

He had been warned that the other will change but he is in denial:

That they have to change in your absence.  They have to move forward.  Occupy space.  They tell you that you will also change.  That you may be hurt.  That you may hurt someone.  That you will have friends who suffer and for whom you suffer.  This has always been true, you think.  This is true of any marriage, you tell yourself.  Making everything more normal.  Just like the neighbours.  Just like any other job, any other place.  (p.6)

Otis is disconcerted that Cat no longer sleeps later than he does, and that objects have been moved during his three-year absence: he can’t find the spoons; the photos are not where they were.   He goes out walking to calm himself, spending hours and hours on foot in the neighbourhood.  To regain control, he tries to map his day, recording – literally – every footfall.

These manifestations of OCD are not like those in Toni Jordan’s light-hearted rom-com Addition.  Moments of panic and distress bleed into the narration when Otis remembers the therapy sessions which taught him strategies to manage it, and he has enough self-awareness to connect the trauma of war with the resurgence of his disorder.  But because he has no visible injuries and he feels such guilt about his war service, he masks his distress and tries to struggle on without professional help.

But as you can see in this excerpt, a surprise visit from his parents reveals that he is deluded in his belief that they think all is well:

And then we’re all sitting around the kitchen table and Cat’s making tea and I’m making coffee and my dad’s telling a story about the drive from the airport.

I’m embarrassed that we don’t have any cake. We don’t eat cake and so we don’t have cake.  But if someone was sitting in my mother’s house she’d definitely offer them cake and that would be normal.  I look in the freezer in case there’s something there.  I look behind things and even when I know there’s nothing there, I keep looking.  I go back to making the coffee.  I put the milk and sugar on the table.  I go back to the freezer.  I try not to open the door but I open the door.  My mother looks up.  Which is what I don’t want.  Which is why I want the cake.  (p.45)

When Otis subsequently loses an arm in a car accident, it is a catalyst for change because people can see a visible injury which they assume is a war injury.  But it also triggers events in the book that make him realise that it’s not all about him.

How to Walk Away is a riveting book, I couldn’t put it down.

Author: Lisa Birman
Title: How to Walk Away
Publisher: Spuyten Duyvil, 2015
ISBN: 9781941550021
Source: Personal library, purchased at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2016, $25.00


  1. When I was growing up the War was a presence – all the fathers were returned soldiers, farm trucks were ex-army, one contractor even used tanks (dragging chains) for clearing mallee, I was immersed in the soldiers’ book of stories, Stand Easy – yet I think it was only with Fly Away Peter (1982) that we became conscious of shell-shock as other than an historical oddity. I wonder what effect it has on “vets” that shell-shock/PTSD is now accepted. Does it free them to admit what they are feeling for instance


    • I don’t know… I did get the feeling from this book that Birman had an intimate knowledge of someone who’d been through the experience.


  2. […] Hill, L. (2018). Review of Birman’s How To Walk Away. Retrieved from […]


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