canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Battered Soles
by Paul Nicholas Mason
Turnstone Press, 2005

Reviewed by Adam Swimmer

Perhaps I'm not the right person to review Paul Nicholas Mason's novel, Battered Soles. Born and raised an atheist myself, a book about a religious pilgrimage may not have the same significance to me as with someone devout to any faith. But then again, travelling from Peterborough to Lakefield in order to honour a dead lesbian artist isn't your typical religious story.

Daz Tourbin, a sculptor from Peterborough, was murdered in the summer of 1996. Shortly before she died, she donated one of her works to St. John the Apostle Church in Lakefield where her girlfriend attended. After the caretaker claimed the statue cured his arthritis, Daz's notoriety began to spread. The summer after her death, people began to take this short pilgrimage from her house in Peterborough, along a route she often biked to visit her lover. And the statue, a blue-skinned Jesus playing the flute, on display in the basement of the Anglican church, has become the focal point of this pilgrimage.

This is where the story begins. Mason blends fiction with reality as he writes about taking this fictional pilgrimage for this fictional artist one weekend in July, 2003. By the time he takes this journey, it has become a mainstay tourist attraction. Over the course of two months, it's said to bring in around 2,000 people. Residents along the pilgrimage trail have set up small shrines in their homes to honour Daz and to give a voice to their own artistic visions.

What makes Battered Soles interesting is the contradictions of this so-called pilgrimage. Although it is considered to be a sacred, religious, community-building endeavour, the experience is far from a traditional one. The short distance of the trip and the fact that it's in Canada aside, the pilgrimage doesn't seem to be restricted to any particular religion. As Mason points at, pilgrimages are more Catholic than Anglican, and the statue itself combines elements of both Christianity and Hinduism, as the Krishna in iconography is often portrayed as a blue figure playing the flute. So the religious trip is only so in the broadest of senses.

The book is a personal exploration of Mason himself as he contemplates his own relationship with religion and spirituality. A former Trent graduate, the pilgrimage allows him to revisit his past which gives the reader a better understanding of the writer himself and his moderate spiritual beliefs. This is essential as it keeps the book from becoming a religious tract.

Although Mason meets many people throughout the trip, his own centrist religious beliefs are bookended by two people in particular. First, there's Ernie, a man who clearly believes that much of religion is stupid, but says he worries about the erosion of Christian family values. Second, there's Doug, a university student who's planning on teaching art and religion in the Catholic school system.

Mason finds Ernie on the pilgrimage, yelling at a group of teens who call the tourists "religious wackos." "Ya bunch of shit-eating, piss-drinking, goat-humping whores," he screams at them and they drive off embarrassed. With a variety of jobs, including an escort driver and front man for a biker gang's home security service, he's not the typical person you'd expect to see on a religious pilgrimage. And his strong command of profanity impresses Mason so much, he decides to accompany Ernie for most of the trip.

Doug on the other hand has very strong religious beliefs, so much so in fact, that he actually believes he's a vessel for the Virgin Mary herself. After he supposedly goes into a trance, and speaks her words, both Ernie and Mason deny anything happened. It's funny because Doug has to accept what they said or admit that he was quite aware what he just did as the Virgin Mary.

The book offers a mild criticism of consumerist culture as well. As Mason presents his narrative alter ego as someone not quick to judge, there aren't any outright indictments of the pilgrimage's commercial side. But Ernie balks at the thought of having to pay $79.95 each for a pair of Jesus and Mary figurines on sale at one of the shrines. Mason himself buys himself a $50 walking stick from vendors on the lawn of Daz's former home. He even picks up a guide book, which lists and rates all the various shrines along the trail. It's almost like a guide to an amusement park.

Battered Soles may not be groundbreaking but it does leave an impression.

Adam Swimmer is a freelance writer living in Toronto.







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