Cheryl Strayed’s blockbuster Wild marked a formidable shift in the women’s memoir category, essentially taking Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love from a Contiki tour to a blistering bootcamp detox.
Somewhere along the marketing way, these blockbusters spliced with self-help, launching a hybrid genre that suggests there is only value in women’s journeys if there are lessons to sell. It makes one wonder how many other authors’ experiences have been overshadowed or turned down because they lack coffee-mug-merch or Netflix-deal potential.
Ceilidh Michelle’s engrossing adventure memoir will never be paired with an inspirational hashtag, and that uniqueness is one of its many strengths. Michelle’s writing shares the blunt honesty and beauty of Yasuko Thanh’s 2019 award-winning memoir, Mistakes to Run With; both books are infused with an authentic insider’s perspective.
Vagabond, based on Michelle’s diaries over a four-month period, quickly establishes that she left a relationship with a loved but mentally ill and abusive partner in a rundown Montreal building to join her sister in Vancouver. As a parting gift, one of her neighbours – one of a few grounding forces in her life at that time – gave Michelle a copy of Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi.
Looking for purpose and some sense of an ideal home, Michelle stealthily leaves Vancouver to follow Yogananda’s path to the southwestern United States. As epic tales go, there are twists and disappointments, which eventually lead her to Venice Beach, an iconic oceanfront Californian neighbourhood romanticized for its quirky boardwalk bohemianism.
But life in Venice for Michelle is not a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. She meets a motley crew of characters living and surviving any way they can, and quickly intuits the many dangers that surround her, especially at night. She has an inherent understanding that many of her newfound relationships are transactional and ephemeral, even after she moves to Slab City, an off-the-grid squatter community in the relentlessly hot southern Californian desert.
Michelle – whose debut novel, Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, was shortlisted for the 2020 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction – is a confident writer with a documentarian’s keen eye. She observes without judgment, injecting this personal story with shots of humour and a seemingly effortless style. As a reader, one can feel the sand under her feet but also squirm imagining what it’s like to be a lone woman trying to survive in a lawless place.
Although Michelle lets readers know in her author’s note that the book takes place from December 2008 to March 2009, Vagabond’s tight lens is both its strength and the reason for its unfortunately abrupt ending. Readers who become invested in Michelle’s story may be disappointed, left wanting more reflection from this fresh new voice.