Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.

When to Walk

by Rebecca Gowers

“Gowers’s debut novel is a mercurial delight, a humorous romp spiked with the unpredictable and the darkly comic. But it is when Gowers ignores the plot and takes the reader intimately inside Ramble’s bewildered consciousness that the story really sparkles. . . . Ramble’s mind fascinates and charms. . . . There are strange moments of intimacy when it feels as if she is stretching out a hand of friendship to the reader. . . . Gowers’s heartfelt novel is the perfect read for those bored with the current surfeit of cliché-ridden chick lit.” —Kylie Walker, New Statesman

  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date October 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8419-5946-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

One part Melissa Bank and another part George Saunders, When to Walk is a laceratingly funny and deeply compassionate take on how one woman reinvents herself and learns that, no matter how late, there can always be a new beginning in life.

When Ramble’s husband calls her an “autistic vampire” and abruptly ends their marriage over lunch, she isn’t quite sure what to do. She has no rent money, a looming deadline for work, and new neighbors who seem to have involved her in petty crime. Faced with the dissolution of a life she hadn’t really wanted, Ramble takes stock of what she has left. In Rebecca Gowers’s sharp debut, Ramble begins to reconsider everything her screwy family and unreliable but loyal friends have taught her so far. She spends a week taking apart her life and deciding which parts she wants to keep. When to Walk is a disarmingly honest portrayal of a young woman coming into her own—lit with hope, rich in magnificent characters, and hilariously wise.

Tags Literary


“[When to Walk is] . . . more than the usual he-left-her story, all the loose ends here make for so many wonderful flecks of color . . . if you read the Oxford English Dictionary for fun, you’ll love When to Walk.” —The Rocky Mountain News

“Gowers’ first novel . . . [is] driven by understated humor and revealing non sequiturs that piece together as incisive stories . . . Gowers imbues her story with writing so sharp and funny it crackles . . . an unlikely heroine, but perfectly flawed.” —Bust Magazine

“An . . . imaginative little novel.” —San Diego Union-Tribune

“[Ramble is] . . . an engaging and entertaining narrator, trying to work out what comes next . . . this likable first novel makes a good choice for most public libraries.” —Library Journal

“The first-person narration is engaging, sometimes bleak but never self-pitying, written in a sharp, lapidary style. The story is adorned with neat little insights and discussions of arcane vocabulary and etymologies . . . anyone who likes witty, spiky, clever and psychologically acute fiction will like it.” —Brandon Robshaw, The Independent

When to Walk put a quirky spin on what might have been an ordinary tale of relationship meltdown.” —Lee Randall, The Scotsman

“Rebecca Gowers’s When to Walk delighted me to the point of buying multiple copies for friends and quoting extracts of the funny dialogue at parties. . . There are echoes of Stevie Smith and Muriel Spark and, since this is Gowers’s first novel, I’m curious to see what she writes next.” —Ruth Scurr, The Daily Telegraph

“Heartening indeed . . . A sharp, literate roman a clef for readers who like their female empowerment free from sentimentality.” —Kirkus Reviews

“By far the best novel I’ve read this year. Rebecca is a genius.” —Scarlett Thomas, author of PopCo and The End of Mr. Y

“We never take our eyes off Ramble and her curious plight. . . . Gowers is a novelist who, to her credit, does nothing predictable. . . . Spirited and often surprisingly moving.” —Lucy Ellmann, Guardian

“Gowers’s debut novel is a mercurial delight, a humorous romp spiked with the unpredictable and the darkly comic. But it is when Gowers ignores the plot and takes the reader intimately inside Ramble’s bewildered consciousness that the story really sparkles. . . . Ramble’s mind fascinates and charms. . . . There are strange moments of intimacy when it feels as if she is stretching out a hand of friendship to the reader. . . . Gowers’s heartfelt novel is the perfect read for those bored with the current surfeit of cliché-ridden chick lit.” —Kylie Walker, New Statesman

“Brilliant . . . It is by turns hilarious and poignant, and shot through with a love of words. . . . There is an emotional wallop lurking in all the witty disquisitions. . . . Unforgettable.” —Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

“Richly evocative and engaging . . . Like Sylvia Plath, the black humour in Gowers’ narrative is not always immediately obvious, although the eccentric and descriptive prose is absorbing. . . . Haunting and effective . . . The meticulous and extensive research which has been invested in the text is an accomplishment in itself. . . . Gowers’ style of prose, imagery, and structure is extremely skilled . . . When to Walk is an inventive and intriguing debut.” —Jane Bradley, Bookmunch


Long-listed for the Orange Prize 2007

Reading Group Guide

Guide by Lindsey Tate

1. The importance of language lies at the center of this novel, told as an interior monologue by the introspective and fittingly named Ramble. Begin your discussion of the work by considering the numerous ways in which the author demonstrates Ramble’s love of language. How does this help Ramble, and how does it impede her? Think about the trustworthiness of words as a means of communication.

2. While Ramble’s name aptly describes her tendency to meander in the telling of a story, why is it an ironic name for her in another sense? Why do you think she is referred to by her last name only by young people, and by a vague term of endearment (“girly,” “darling”) by older people? Look at other names in the novel and consider whether they carry a sense of their bearer’s character.

3. How effective did you find the narrative, told as it spills from Ramble’s mind, spinning through the details of her present and past, stopping for multiple asides as she feeds her fascination for etymology? Did this method of narration bring you closer to Ramble? What about the other characters?

4. The novel opens with Ramble mulling over her husband’s unexpected ending of their marriage over lunch. How does she respond to his verbal attack? What are his stated reasons for his decision? How does Ramble feel? Why do you think she experiences guilt? Talk about what we learn about Ramble both from Con’s statements and from Ramble’s interpretations and reinterpretations of his words.

5. Con’s departure serves as a starting off point for Ramble to analyze her relationship with him, and her life in general. How far would you agree that his act of leaving her serves as a catalyst—if by catalyst we mean something that provokes significant change?

6. As Ramble replays Con’s spiel in her mind she translates particular phrases or dwells on certain words (“I think you need to widen your social circle” becomes “make your own fucking friends”) until the original speech has been transformed. What does this say about the integrity of language? Find other instances in the novel where language shifts or becomes confusing or misinterpreted—often with tragic or comic results.

7. Expanding on this theme, given that all events in the narrative are filtered through Ramble’s mind and we have seen the elastic nature of language and its interpretation, how reliable a narrator can she be? How far are we able to know Ramble? Consider whether we ever see Ramble through another character’s eyes.

8. Rambles states that if she were told she had only thirty seconds left to live she would “be passive and yet violently alert” (p. 26). To what extent would you agree that this describes her state throughout the novel? What are your feelings for her as the heroine of the novel—or would anti-heroine be a more accurate description? Are you able to empathize with her? As the novel progresses do you find yourself agreeing with Con, especially with his accusation “you don’t know how to relate to other people?”

9. It is interesting that Ramble chooses not to tell her mother about the dissolution of her marriage. Why? Talk about Ramble’s relationship with her mother. Why do you think both Con and Johnson seem to admire her mother? Describe and discuss her relationship with her father.

10. As Ramble plumbs her family history a pattern of mismatched relationships appears—Con and Ramble, Ramble’s parents and her grandparents, Stella and Alphonso Ramble. Find examples that illustrate each couple’s differences. Consider the fact that Stella Ramble remained married but had an affair while her father chose to leave his marriage after many years of unhappiness. Where does Ramble fit into the scheme of things? Perhaps this is one possible reading of the novel’s title When to Walk?

11. Her grandmother, Stella Ramble, suffers a form of dementia and has very little short-term memory. Why is this especially distressing to Ramble? Why do you think she is so eager to find out more about the photograph of the hat shop?

12. The fluid nature of truth and falsehood perhaps forms the novel’s core and ripples throughout Ramble’s thoughts and actions. Consider her fascination with Edward Lloyd, king of the perfect liars in 1840s England. How does the nature of Ramble’s work fit into the theme of truth and deception in the novel?

13. Misinterpretation of words is rife throughout the novel. In the light of this viewpoint consider the role of Beata with her stilted English.

14. Humor simmers beneath the surface of the novel, often appearing as pathos or comic absurdity. How would you describe this brand of humor? Find examples to illustrate your viewpoints. Discuss the importance of jokes and puns to the humor of the novel, to Ramble’s character, and as they affect the overall theme of language in the novel.

15. Mrs. Shaw flits briefly into and out of Ramble’s life but wreaks great changes with her ungrammatical advice “sort your head out a little bit previous next time you’re, right, in trouble, whatever, so they can’t get you, you know?” (p. 165) and her note “Be smart.” Talk about the character of Mrs. Shaw and the ways in which she complements Ramble. Think about whether they might be alike in some ways. Does Ramble take her advice or does it just happen to parallel her own thoughts? Why is Mrs. Shaw’s best story about the perfect lie so fascinating to Ramble?

16. It seems that, with the arrival of Mrs. Shaw, Ramble becomes more self-conscious about her limp and describes herself in no uncertain terms as “a cripple” and addresses herself as “gimpy legs.” Why do you think this is? Ramble’s physical condition plays a central role in the narrative on both a figurative and literal level. Expand upon the use of her infirmity as a metaphor for her inaction. Take into account the novel’s title.

17. How is Ramble’s deafness relevant to the novel as a whole?

18. Mrs. Shaw introduces Ramble to a world she has never known, that of petty crime, and along with it a whole new set of expressions (rinsing, a trip around the world). Find other examples of subjects in the novel that possess their own special words or idioms.

19. Ramble states that she married Con because it was the “brave thing to do” (p. 64). What do you think she means by that? Think about the importance of music in their relationship as a method of communication. What was the significance of Con’s decision to compose using headphones, especially in view of Ramble’s statement “When I married him, I was pleased to be able to hide in the noise of his life” (p. 158). Compare the use of music in Ramble’s parent’s marriage.

20. Do you agree with Con that “There can never be anything dishonest about trying to make music do what it does as perfectly as possible” (p. 218)?

21. Discuss the character of Johnson Pike, and analyze where he fits into the novel. How surprised are you to discover that he finds Ramble sexually attractive? Does this change your view of her? Did it make you reconsider the frankly self-deprecating image of herself that Ramble has been presenting? How far do you agree with Johnson when he says “Switch your brain off, Ramble” (p. 195)?

22. What is your feeling as you hear Con’s voice on the stairs and realize that he has come back to Ramble? What does this say about your affinity for Ramble?

23. Chart the movement of Ramble’s feelings over the course of the novel from feeling “bewildered” and “guilty” at the beginning to her decision to “be smart” (p. 233). How does she get from “waiting to find out what happens next” to understanding that “I was in it: next had begun. Next was now” (p. 233)?

24. Consider the irony of these two understatements and how they complement each other “The usual: library, Stella Ramble, work, the usual” (p. 213) (Ramble’s answer to how she has spent her week), and Con’s desperate plea to “let’s just look forwards and try to forget all the stupid details” (p. 219).

25. The novel ends on a positive note with Ramble boarding the night bus and viewing herself as someone worthy of a good friend. What do you project for her future?

Suggestions for further reading:

Men and Women by Robert Browning; The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic; Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov; Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald; I Would Have Saved Them If I Could by Leonard Michaels; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; American Purgatorio by John Haskell; Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill


Nil By Mouth, dir. Gary Oldman (1997); Wonderland, dir. Michael Winterbottom (1999)