by Chris Gordon
Written long before she became director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Neon Pilgrim is an often humorous, brutally honest record of a walking expedition taken when Dempster was 28 years old and needed a dramatic change in her life. Even back then, Dempster was not one to shy away from a challenge: so she embarks on a truly daunting 1200km walking trek around the island of Shikoku, Japan.
This is the famous 88 Temple Pilgrimage, performed in honour of the ninth-century monk who brought Buddhism to Japan. Dempster is not after enlightenment as such, but rather an opportunity to invigorate her life. Simply, she wants to come to an understanding of who she is and why, and in the process, to shake the despair that has overtaken her life. In an interview, she says that she took the journey because she was depressed. She also finished the journey depressed, and in the end, it was the writing of the book that helped. Dempster deals well with the issues around mental health. I am grateful that she doesn’t hide behind a sense of bravado, or fixate on her trek being a solution. I also appreciate that she doesn’t recount every step she takes on her ‘spiritual’ journey in great detail, but rather she records conversations, bathrooms, drunken haircuts, beers and meals shared with strangers. Thankfully, Dempster’s honesty means that this is neither sentimental nor saccharine.
Consider this book the Japanese version of Robyn Davidson’s Tracks. It will appeal to anyone who feels as if they’re standing at the crossroads of life, to lovers of Japanese culture, and to those who still want to believe anything is possible if you can simply take some time to think it through.
Chris Gordon is the Events Manager for Readings.
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