Rumour has it that pilgrimage narratives are the next big thing. Following on from Eat Pray Love, and with Wild fresh in our memories, Arkie’s Pilgrimage To The Next Big Thing is another example of the ‘finding yourself’ novel. The book’s protagonist, Arkie, is a 40-something woman, recently separated from both her husband and her career. A strange set of circumstances sets her off on a road trip, from which she emerges with a fresh perspective and redefined ambitions. But don’t let me give you the impression that it’s just another woman-goes-on-a-physical-and-spiritual-journey tale. Ok, it is that. But the characters and locations it draws on are as fresh as a Big Pineapple parfait.
Did you see what I did there? Australian readers will love the fact that this novel about finding your personal ‘next big thing’ is based on a pilgrimage around the east coast’s official ‘big things’, a collection of famously kitsch cultural icons, built mostly in the 60s and 70s. From the Pineapple to the Prawn, Arkie discovers that you don’t need to consult a guru on a remote Asian beach, or get knee deep in leeches in some hostile terrain in order to experience a spiritual journey. Auspicious signs, sliding door opportunities and curious characters with valuable insights are, in fact, everywhere – if you’re paying attention.
This novel has a very stark beginning, with Arkie in Byron Bay (with all its new agey connotations) literally on a precipice, considering ending her life. Her marriage is in ruins, and she is partly to blame. A failed business venture has left her career in tatters and her finances stretched to breaking point. She is being pursued by her ex’s lawyer, who wants to finalise their divorce. It also happens to be 31st December, and Arkie sees no point in celebrating the start of another miserable year. At the eleventh hour, an enigmatic Japanese tourist interferes with Arkie’s suicide bid and suggests she embark on a pilgrimage, to cleanse the soul.
‘Pilgrimages are so hot right now. I think they are the next Big Thing,’ says Haruko, Arkie’s saviour. But with no money to explore a famous or ‘official’ pilgrimage – like the Camino pilgrimage in Spain, or the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, which attract thousands of people each year – Arkie chooses the big things as the ‘temples’ to visit on her quest. ‘Can’t we Eat, Pray, Love in Australia?’ she asks. Haruko, it turns out, has her own shady past and, with the Yakuza at her heels, agrees that an Australian pilgrimage will have to suffice.
These ‘temples’, like the Big Redback, Big Banana and Big Cow, are weirdly quaint and unlovely yet also quite evocative: symbols of a simpler age, telling a story about changes to the primary industries and tourism patterns in their home towns. Almost none of them get the love and attention they commanded when first built, meaning the pilgrims need to look hard to find points of interest behind shabby facades and tatty gift shops. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and we don’t always need a marketing team to tell us what we should find attractive. After all, these big things were once, themselves, the next big thing, reminding us of the ephemeral, transient nature of our fads and fashions.
Haruko shares with Arkie the Japanese tradition of celebrating 7 Shinto lucky gods on New Year’s Eve. She presents her with a set of statuettes; tiny talismans she will carry on her pilgrimage as she confronts demons and sheds baggage. Arkie rolls them in her hand ‘like rosary beads’ and we see the author playing with ideas around how we ‘do’ spirituality in modern Australia. In the gift shop at the Big Avocado, for example…
They also have a selection of Buddhas, ranging from key ring attachments to mantelpiece ornaments and garden sculptures. Haruko stops still in front of them. ‘Why so many Buddhas? I thought Australia was a Christian country?’
‘Mmm. Kind of. People here are interested in Buddhism.’
‘So they study Buddhism?’
‘Maybe. Or maybe just get the statue.’
Adding to the multiple meanings of the ‘next big thing’, Arkie’s former ‘day job’ was as a trend-spotter; she earned big bucks for her skill at identifying products and concepts that were likely to catch on. In amongst her woes, Arkie believes her insight, or mojo, was stolen by a lover, who later becomes a business client of Haruko, who also has the ‘gift’ for spotting trends. On all kinds of levels we’re reminded of the ways in which rational people harbour superstitions or act on gut feelings, even if they don’t consider themselves spiritual.
The messages of the book are as you might expect from the genre: you will be haunted by your past until you make peace with it, and the next big thing on your personal journey should probably be found within, rather than jumping on the latest bandwagon. The locations, though, make a really original backdrop for this type of novel. What’s more, Arkie is not always a sympathetic character. As a forty-something Australian with a few career changes under my belt, I could relate to her naval gazing lack of direction, but I’m not sure I’d invite her over for dinner. Haruko simultaneously symbolises the Western fetishisation of Eastern philosophies and Japan as the cutting edge purveyor of big things. Her logic and confidence provide a perfect balance (yin and yang?) to Arkie’s self pity in this ambitious ‘buddy movie’ of a book.
The next big thing for this book is a blog tour! Check out the other reviews of this title and interviews with author Lisa Walker at blogs including Book’d Out, Aussie Reviews and Duffy The Writer. Full details of the Random House book blog tour are here, where you can also find resources for your book club.
With thanks to Random House Australia for my review copy.