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Review: A Short Walk Through a Wide World, by Douglas Westerbeke

This debut novel has a great premise and an interesting character, but left me wanting more

In 1885, a young girl is afflicted with a mysterious disease that threatens her life. The only way to avoid dying from the disease is to keep moving. If she stays in one place more for more than about three days, the symptoms return and she will die if she does not move on.

 Thus is the setup for Douglas Westerbeke’s debut novel, A Short Walk Through the Wide World (Avid Reader Press, coming April 2024).

Beautiful cover!

This woman at the heart of the book, Aubry Torval, is an interesting character. Thrust into the world at a young age, she is forced to look after herself and therefore becomes an independent, self-reliant woman when women are discouraged to be so. Even before the disease strikes her, she has her own mind and is not afraid to voice her thoughts. This independence serves her well when her odyssey begins.

The book traces her journey throughout the world and covers the course of her life. Along the way, she meets friends and lovers, and occasionally enemies, and learns much about herself and about the world that she travels through. Because she has to keep moving forward, never going back, she eventually goes to every corner of the world, continually exploring new landscapes and cultures. She also discovers mysterious libraries that often appear when she needs shelter the most, or when she needs to make an impossible journey (across the Himalayas, for example).

The book details her emotional journey as she grapples with constantly having to leave everyone and everything behind because of the disease. This struggle with the ramifications of leaving is a theme that runs throughout the book, as does its opposite: the adventure of seeing new places and meeting new people.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book, but finished it disappointed, because I really wanted to love it. It’s a great concept, the main character is interesting, and the fantasy elements, while not a major part of the plot, add interest.

My dissatisfaction with the book lies in four areas:

  1. Too much left unresolved. I wanted to know the why behind the affliction. And why Aubry and not anyone else? There are one or two hints throughout the book, but it’s never really spelled out to my satisfaction. This is closely related to point #2.
  2. Fantasy elements are unclear. Aubry often refers to her disease as a demon perched on her shoulder, whispering in her ear. This seemed to be a literary device, but sometimes it seemed like maybe it wasn’t. Maybe this disease came from the malevolent influence of a creature. This is never really explained. The libraries are also a puzzle. What are they? Who put them there? We never find out. What about the mysterious well that appears at important moments of the story? And a puzzle ball, which Aubry encounters at the beginning of her odyssey, seems to be something important to the “curse” of the disease, too. But again, I was left unsatisfied as to what its part in the story was supposed to be.
  3. Too much time covered in one book. The story spans the whole course of Aubry’s life, which, as I have explained in other reviews, is not my favourite type of story. Although Westerbeke handled this well, at times I wished the story would slow down a bit and give us more time with Aubry at the various stages of her life.
  4. POV switching. This didn’t happen often, but it jarred me when it did. The narrative would be in the middle of one part of Aubry’s life, which is set firmly in Aubry’s point of view, when suddenly there will be a comment from an omniscient narrator like, “In five years this person will be dead, killed by …..”. This didn’t happen too often, but it always threw me out of the story when it did, and ultimately this foreknowledge of what was going to happen sucked some of the life out of the story when it returned to the main plot.

Ultimately, these things added up to making this book less enjoyable than I thought it was going to be. So, I give it four stars. Great concept, good writing, but ultimately an unsatisfying journey for me.

Thank you to NetGalley and Avid Reader Press for providing this free copy for review. A Short Walk Through A Wide World will be published in April, 2024. 

Looking for an exciting historical fantasy set in 7th-century England? Check out The Traveller’s Path!