It may come as a shock to some of you, certainly those less aware of ‘me’, that I am not a man for naive sentiment and emotion. I know some of my poetry can seem as such, and I often talk of ‘peace and love’ as if I know what I am talking about, but frankly, this dark soul does not have a clue. When I write there is a marriage that occurs between my thoughts and my emotions that is not there in my day to day business - the emotions usually being left out of it.
So it is with trepidation that I read anything that carries with it platitudes of hope and love. All that sappy ‘happiness’ nonsense that just does not exist in my cold and logical world. And so it surprised me that I so enjoyed ‘Strangers and Pilgrims’.
The concept is quite odd, drawing on the age old artistic exploration of pain and misery - but binding it together with a Google twist. The story sees six individuals - all with their own problems - come together simply by an internet search for the term ‘My heart is broken and I am dying inside’. The characters themselves are all well fleshed out, unique and in some cases even eccentric, and yet believable. They are all - despite their misgivings, flaws, problems, and oddities - warm, and genuine - and the writer seems rather adept at allowing each one to sit on an individual heartstring and pluck at it accordingly, for their own reasons.
The first part of the book is an introduction to the characters. This is where most of the fleshing out is done, and the matter of fact way in which they are introduced, one by one, perfectly lends itself to the part title of ‘Strangers’. It is clear that these are all people who, in the course of their normal lives would never come together in any way and indeed, while they are all similarly at the end of their respective tethers - it is for different reasons. These reasons, and not the heartache are what is highlighted most in this part, so as not to provide too much scope for similarity between the characters, I felt. This only lends the characters more individuality and makes them feel genuine.
As mentioned, they all put in the particular search term and come across a unique retreat. This is the part of the book that intrigued me. Each character gets involved in an email conversation with a shadowy figure ‘The Warden’ and, this evokes in me Kafka-esque feelings of distancing from authority - But of spiritual, rather than governmental bureaucracy. The device of the internet search, and this secretive figure help link one character’s story with another and provide feelings of trepidation and consideration within the characters when they do meet up. It certainly kept my interest, and I think this device was used rather well.
The stark contrast between the first part, ‘Strangers’ to the second ‘Pilgrims’ is immediate. What once were six lonely, lost and heartbroken figures quickly becomes a community of people who all have their place and while they each still carry their burden, it is like they kick it off, as easily as their shoes, upon reaching the retreat. The conversation flows naturally between them and the characters really compliment each other well - even finding shared ground in some of their woeful stories of the past. And it is here that my feelings on the book changed slightly.
Up until this point I had been intrigued, captivated, indeed I was enjoying it…But there was a hesitation. The undercurrents of religious and spiritual thought were not sitting right. I am not religious, in any capacity and I suppose I was worried that the entire thing was heading for that angle. But I need not have feared. While elements of religion and spirituality are explored leading up to the conclusion, what most struck me - and indeed made me love what I was reading - was the application of humanity to it all. And that is what this is all about for me! It is about six people who have all lost humanity - whether it is not being given by others, or whether they are not accepting it - they do not feel human. And yet by merely coming together, these individuals immediately rediscover that which they had lost. They find people who allow them to be human again - who treat them as human, who give them respect, and love and compassion often so lacking in today’s world. Indeed, anyone who has felt alienated at any point in their life, and remembers it well, will be able to relate to this book for that reason. As each individual tells their respective stories about how they came to be lost and hopeless, they do not seem like they are succumbing to weakness, but regaining strength. Despite their all being there for miserable reasons, there is happiness merely in their togetherness. It is wonderful to read of their transformations and, as with any good writer, the characters begin to feel as friends.
By the conclusion you are left as transformed as the characters. When even a miserable old cynic like me is smiling come the end you know, as a writer, you have worked your magic.
This is a book that really explores the depths of pain, and does so wonderfully. But more than that, it also shows how cleansing and cathartic experience it can be to purge ourselves of that; and more, to take the time to allow ourselves to. We all love to wallow in a bit of misery every now then (or, if you’re me, every day for the rest of your damn life…) But every now and then we must take a risk, and do something different, see something new or just open our minds to a new experience to prevent ourselves become stale, and lost and inhuman. While I took the humanistic element of this tale, it offers up thought and contemplation to people of any belief - it is very well written in that way, with characters who will all be more relatable to your way of thinking. This book offers no path - while it explores the religious side of things, the spiritual side of things, the alternative side of things - what it most reminds me of, as I have said, is the human side of things. Whether you undergo a change due to a God, or spiritual being or means, whether you choose to take up yoga or whether you just decide to meet new people; it is much better to be pilgrims on this journey, than strangers.
Strangers and Pilgrims by Vivienne Tuffnell is available in Kindle format and in paperback from Amazon, in both the UK, the US and other territories. Links provided below.