Book review: The Man Who Walked Away

It is 1886. A traumatised young man, Albert, is unable to stop walking. He walks from town to town, across the countryside, across borders, sleeping in ditches or barns.

The Man Who Walked Away

Maud Casey

Bloomsbury Circus, €21.20

Finally, he reappears in Bordeaux, his hometown, exhausted and starving, and the gas lamplighter, an old friend of Albert’s dead father, realises that he needs help.

Loosely based on the real, 19th century case of a man committed to a Bordeaux psychiatric hospital after walking across Europe, The Man Who Walked Away is told from two perspectives: Albert’s, and his doctor’s. ‘But why do you walk’? the doctor asks him. ‘Why can’t you stop’? Albert doesn’t know.

This material might have been gloomier, the story of a young man derailed after the deaths of both his parents, and the primitive methods used by his psychiatrist to help him recover.

Instead, the story is dazzlingly intelligent, and enchanting, the kind that we rarely read in these cynical, ‘sophisticated’ times.

American author Maud Casey says she’s driven by wonder, both in subject and in constructing a sentence.

This is clearly the case here. The lyrical language has the transparent precision of fine-glass engraving.

One image skips onto another, so that we feel like the woman chasing a hat that’s being blown by the wind: “ … skidding along just out of reach ... past the statue of Diana dragging the fallen stag, past the statue dedicated to the soldiers who died for their country, past the men lucky or unlucky enough not to work the docks as they settle in at the café tables.”

In such ways, we are given a view of the city, and of the world, as Albert experiences it.

Casey delves into the psyche not just of a character who walks the fine, ever-shifting line between mental illness and ‘normality’, but also of his quirky, kind doctor, whose greatest pleasure is going for a ride on his new bicycle: ‘Click-clickety-click.’

There are the other patients in the hospital, such as Marian, who feels that her stomach has been stolen by the sun, and Rachel, who is obsessed with Chopin’s sister.

It is these patients who ground Albert, and give him a sense of home.

Pivotal is the relationship between Albert and the doctor, who experiments with hypnosis to recover Albert’s fragmented memories.

The more the doctor works with Albert (whom he guesses is about 20 years old), the more he feels he will discover something about his own memories and identity.

This is a novel about empathy and perception.

Casey is deeply intuitive about the ways both memory and story work. Nothing unfolds in the usual way. Like the rivers that meander across the continent and across this book, the threads are so interwoven, so mysteriously bound up with a million other incidental moments, that it’s impossible to know what triggered what.

There are many wonderful books that I won’t get to re-read. This, however, will be one of the exceptions.

I anticipate a plethora of awards for this novel, Casey’s third.

Reading The Man Who Walked Away is like standing near the ocean and watching the perfect wave.

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