Vicious and Virtuous Circles

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

At first glance, there is little to connect these books, apart from their being the latest works by accomplished and prolific Canadian writers—one a deceptively short novel and the other a non-fictional narrative. Their reliance on the inner voice of the narrator to guide the story is one of few similarities. Furthermore, both focus on the sojourner, the wanderer, and the tension between paradoxical impulses of rootedness in place and momentum of the journey. My title here suggests the opposing but linked concepts of vicious and virtuous circles. Both involve inhabiting an uncomfortable present, though On Foot to Canterbury emphasizes growth and Second Place emphasizes seemingly fruitless repetition. Similarly, Cusk’s novel takes us so deeply inside the mind of the narrator that the claustrophobia is almost excruciating, while Haigh’s book draws the reader outside the visceral and personal story of the traveler with allusions, quotations, photographs, and footnotes.


Rachel Cusk’s Second Place is inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Time (1932), which is based on D. H. Lawrence’s stay at Luhan’s New Mexico guesthouse. Cusk’s narrator is M, and L is the visual artist whom she invites to stay at the “second place” belonging to the narrator and her husband, Tony. The title is multivalent, reflecting theme, location, and relationship. In many ways, the novel reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, envisioning hell as a room in which one must spend eternity with “other people.” The addressee in Cusk’s novel, Jeffers, is compelled to listen to M’s rambling narration, which is steeped in self-absorption and overthinking. The only route to escape is through the story.


M’s account to Jeffers begins in Paris, where she sees L’s paintings and is immediately reeled in, associating them with her own internal distress and longing for what she later recognizes as the freedom of masculinity. Years later, she invites L to her coastal home, but his arrival with a young woman, Brett, never satisfies what becomes an inexorable itch to glimpse L’s perspective and capture his attention. The couple’s “second place,” in an unidentified marsh area, becomes a controlling image in the narrative, as M initially tells L that she desires “to see what it looks like through your eyes” (17). The place is one of “desolation and solace and mystery, and it hasn’t yet told its secret to anyone,” but L resists painting M or the landscape and rejects her adulation. “L and Brett” import “a new standard, a new way of seeing, in which the old things could no longer hold their shape” (52). M analyzes every aspect of the guests’ behaviours and her own responses, punctuated by exclamations directed at Jeffers. The narrative reflects the impossibility of escape, and thus becomes the opposite of “moving” for the reader, who literally cannot put it down until the last pages. The reader is haunted like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”


While Haigh’s On Foot to Canterbury seems to evoke an opposing response in the reader—that is, a desire to remain in the physical and personal space of the story—it too describes a circular journey, with a narrator who is a restless wanderer and aspires to “walk my way into a better frame of mind” (xiv). Thus, Haigh’s narrative aspires to be a virtuous circle, cutting flint-like through distraction and returning with the pilgrim’s boon, which it then gives to the reader (251). Like Cusk’s novel, the book is a memento mori in that it focuses on a journey taken in the past. As Haigh notes, travelling plays an enormous role in his life, and the linear pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury—a road rich with historical and literary significance—is inspired by a tentative plan made with his father. Initially, he is reluctant to carry out this plan after his father’s death, but “itchy feet” and a constant awareness “of the existential clock ticking” (116) lead him to revise it into his own journey through a process of relentless self-doubt and grieving.


My own research has recently focused on pilgrimage narratives and their common features, which Haigh’s book incorporates: the maps, the time lag between seeing and recording, and self-presentation as both reflection and guide. The link between walking in the present and narrating the journey in the past fascinates me as a scholar and reader. Haigh comments in a blog post that “serious walkers . . . tend to be writers. Perhaps this is because walking lends itself to thinking, and long-distance hiking can produce enough mental material to fill a book” (“Literary Hikes”). The linear path to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury—with multiple allusions to Bunyan, Chaucer, Raleigh, Walton, and Keats—becomes Haigh’s journey, and it ends with his hope that “it inspires you to take journeys of your own” (251). Refreshing in its admission that there is “no hand of God reaching down to touch me on the forehead, no Vision on the Road to Damascus” (247), Haigh’s book still offers glimpses of wisdom in unexpected places. One involves Haigh’s conversation about fishing with a local whom he encounters on the road. Others concern Haigh’s allusions to places on the road in Bunyan’s allegory and his use of epigraphs from multiple texts.


Both Haigh’s and Cusk’s book challenges the reader—to remain focused, present, and vigilant while tracing what seems to be a vicious circle. Haigh’s book begins where it ends, with his recurring dream of almost reaching Canterbury, from which he awakens with a reminder of itchy feet. As Haigh states, “walking should lead to self-reflection, but . . . I can’t slow my thoughts enough to think deeply about anything” (64-65). The book itself, though, is evidence that one can walk the same path as other pilgrims, multiple times, and yet “never come this way again” (251).


Works Cited

Haigh, Ken. “Literary Hikes.” Ken Haigh: Author, 4 Feb. 2021,

This review “Vicious and Virtuous Circles” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 28 Sep. 2022. Web.

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