The Walking Tour
Reviewed by Stacy Bush, Fri., Feb. 25, 2000
The Walking Tour
by Kathryn Davis
Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $23
Kathryn Davis's new novel The Walking Tour defies any easy summary but here's the basic narrative: Late in the 20th century, two couples, Bobby Rose and Carole Ridingham and Coleman Snow and Ruth Farr, join a group of tourists for a pleasantly bucolic walking tour through the Welsh countryside. Both wives are artistic and unstable. Carole is a renowned, talented painter, tactfully considered a "borderline" schizophrenic. Ruth is a novelist subject to grandiose hallucinations. Their husbands are partners in a computer software company named SnowWrite & RoseRead and the creators of a program that allows a user to insert his or her own text into another author's existing work.
Joining the two couples are tour guides Brenda and David, who advertise their tour as a New Age Wordsworthian jaunt; another couple, Tadeusz and Magtil; and Naomi and Paula, who adamantly insist that they are not a couple. Completing this cast of characters is the single loner of the group, Mr. Hsia, an Asian businessman, who has a particularly keen interest in Bobby and Coleman's business and may or may not be plotting a hostile takeover. Like any other group of strangers quickly thrown into proximity, alliances and tensions stress and strain the group. But unlike most groups of hapless, quarreling tourists, this walking tour culminates in tragedy -- two of its members die.
Nearly 30 years later, Susan, the daughter of Bobby and Carole, studies the court transcripts, her mother's letters, and Ruth's diary, as she tries to understand what led to this catastrophe. At this point in the future, Susan is looking back at a world that literally no longer exists. Nobody now has the opportunity to visit a lush, pastoral country. This 21st century is a dark, barren world ruled by a violent gang called the Strags. Susan soon finds she has two daunting tasks at hand: What caused that fatal accident 30 years ago, and how did it also manage to precipitate the nightmare world that Susan now inhabits?
Davis' fragmented narrative is demanding but exhilarating. Few writers are confident enough to attempt such a complex plot and fewer still are skilled enough to bring it off. There are subtle homages to Kafka, Lewis Carroll, and Sylvia Plath within The Walking Tour, which seems completely appropriate. At the end of the novel, it doesn't matter so much that Davis has provided a tidy solution for her mysteries but that she is able to convince you that every individual and event in the novel was in some way responsible for both disasters. In Davis' world, questions are more valuable than solutions -- and ultimately, more risky, too.