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Sunday 20 April 2014

Edel Coffey on the book that Oprah says is the new 'Eat, Pray, Love'

When Cheryl Strayed was 22, her mother died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45. Grief is a sinuous thing. It retracts and unfurls like a wave – just when you think the tide has gone out for the last time, it comes rushing back in again with renewed energy.

After her mother died, Cheryl's previously tight-knit family fell apart. Her young brother turned to drink and she herself felt now that her mother was gone, there was nothing binding her to her stepfather who had been the only father she had ever known. The family began to drift apart.

Even Strayed's marriage fell apart as she became promiscuous in the face of her mother's death. They divorced soon after and she moved to stay with a friend in Oregon. There she met a heroin addict called Joe and soon began using herself. When she became pregnant with Joe's baby she had an abortion.

After three years of living in the wilderness of grief, she stumbled across a guidebook to another sort of wilderness – The Pacific Crest Trail, a 1100-mile trek along the west coast of America, from California to Oregon. At the age of 26, she decided she would do the trek, alone, in an attempt to sort out her life and get back to the person she had been before her mother died.

Of course, everybody is on a journey of self-discovery these days. There was a time when just living was enough, but then came the time when you had to be happy too. In 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray Love became the defining book of the era.

At the height of the global economic boom, Gilbert's diary of her post-divorce journey of self-discovery through yoga and meditation classes in India and cookery classes in Italy was the perfect, privileged response to a relationship break-up.

Strayed's memoir is already being called the Eat, Pray, Love of 2013. But it is a memoir for our times, full of tribulation, loneliness and coming to terms with difficult truths about ourselves. Oprah has already given it her blessing, making it the first book on her newly returned book club reading list, and Reese Witherspoon has bought the rights to the film.

Wild, as the title suggests, is not so much a gentle quest for self-discovery but rather a quest for survival.

If Gilbert's book was exorcism through the lotus position, Strayed's book is more like getting in touch with your inner self through foot blisters, friction burns and dehydration. Here she is beating her demons into submission with thorny branches, smoking her true self out by leaving it with no place to hide.

The book is engrossing from the opening page and anyone who has read Strayed in her previous incarnation of agony aunt for the website Sugar will be familiar with her voice, a mix of laugh-out-loud bluntness and genuine compassion.

The narrative is taut and gripping, moving back and forth between Strayed's backstory and her experiences on the trail, as she deals with the intimidation of being a woman alone on the track (she was the only woman to do the trek solo that year), being run off the track by a bull and facing down a bear.

But none of these is as challenging as her own demons. She quickly discovers that, on the mountain track, there are no distractions to help her ignore her feelings – "no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay". It's an interesting comment on modern life and how easily we can keep our true feelings at bay, even from ourselves.

The real attraction of this book, however, and the one thing that compels you to keep reading, is Strayed's unflinchingly honesty. She does not recoil from writing about the details that are not only intensely private but also unflattering.

In Wild, she has plunged her two hands down into the dark, murky things that people do in even darker moments and wrenched them up into the light. In doing so, she has written a book that offers forgiveness and acceptance to herself and to those who have been through similar experiences.

Wild is certainly a book that belongs in the new hybrid genre of memoir-cum-self-help and anyone who has ever gone through a break-up or lost a parent will find something comforting in this book.

There are lots of small messages of hope, from the unnecessary baggage she carries around in her backpack (and finally finds the courage to ditch) to the importance of continuing along the path, even while not knowing what lies around the corner.

Each section of the book begins with inspirational quotes like the one from Mary Oliver – "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

It's a good question and one readers will be prompted to answer by the time they get to the end of Strayed's inspiring tale of self-discovery.

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