Thursday, 31 August 2017

Book Review: NEON PILGRIM by Lisa Dempster

Title: Neon Pilgrim
Author: Lisa Dempster
Ventura Press
August 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Book Description (Goodreads):

During a culture-shocked exchange year in Japan, fifteen-year-old Lisa Dempster’s imagination is ignited by the story of the henro michi, an arduous 1200 kilometre Buddhist pilgrimage through the mountains of Japan.

Perfectly suiting the romantic view of herself as a dusty, travel-worn explorer (well, one day), she promises to return to Japan and walk the henro michi, one way or another, as soon as humanely possible.

Fast-forward thirteen years, and Lisa’s life is vastly different to what she pictured it would be. Severely depressed, socially withdrawn, overweight, on the dole and living with her mum, she is 28 and miserable.

And then, completely by chance, the henro michi comes back into her life, through a book at her local library. It’s a sign. She decides then and there to go back to Japan almost immediately: to walk the henro michi, and walk herself back to health.

Brushing aside the barriers that other people might find daunting – the 1200km of mountainous terrain, the sweltering Japanese summer, the fact she has no money and has never done a multi-day hike before – Lisa is determined to walk the pilgrimage, or die trying.

My musings:

I love hiking nearly as much as I love books, so when I received an offer to review Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster it was a no-brainer to put my hands up – yes please!  Neon Pilgrim is Lisa’s account of her pilgrimage on the Henro Michi trail in Shikoku, Japan – walking 1200 km of mountainous terrain in the gruelling summer heat. I admire people who have the courage to step outside their comfort zone to experience truly life-changing events. My own hikes, whilst having taken me to some beautiful locations, have been tame in comparison, always holding the promise of company, a good meal, a hot shower (sometimes) and a bed to sleep in at the end of the day – even if the bed was in a remote mountain hut. Lisa, on the other hand, hiked in true pilgrim style – navigating completely alien territory on her own, with both her meals and her shelter often only received at the hands of generous strangers. What a lot of courage it takes to travel like that!

Writing with total honesty and an irresistible sense of Aussie humour that was both refreshing as well as laugh-out-loud funny at times, Lisa recalls her experiences on her pilgrimage, giving the reader an insight into both the gruelling as well as the rewarding aspects of her journey. Setting off without any experience or prior training, and fighting an ongoing battle with depression, she navigated the pain and pitfalls of her first few days (and weeks) on the trail with amazing stamina, not holding anything back when recalling her pain and doubts on setting off on her hike. 

"Are you sad?" Shunya asked in English.
"No," I replied. "Maybe. I don't know. Just tired."
He nodded.
"It's hard," he said gently.

What wonderful armchair travel – I have never been to Japan, but could vividly picture both its beautiful countryside as well as its graceful people. Lisa’s inner journey was also an interesting one, as she slowly became more comfortable in her own body and managed to still her ever-chatty Western mind to reflect on her life choices.

With a voice that is as honest as it is heartfelt, the tale never comes across as whiny or preachy, as some similar life-journey books tend to do – and it was always entertaining to read about Lisa’s encounters with the many colourful characters she met along the way. I think the one thing I loved most about Neon Pilgrim (and which made the book stand out from many similar travel tales) was Lisa’s uninhibited honesty, the way she never censors her thoughts in order to make herself appear braver or tougher in the eyes of the reader. It takes a lot of guts to leave yourself so exposed and vulnerable and own up to your own weaknesses!


If you like hiking, or armchair travel, or just a tale about someone who was gutsy enough to step out of her comfort zone, Neon Pilgrim may be just the book for you. Brimming with interesting characters and written with warmth, honesty and an irresistible Aussie humour, this memoir was both interesting as well as entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever yearned for adventure but has found many excuses why they can’t do it – Lisa’s honest account of her pilgrimage proves that where there is a will, there is a way! 

Thank you to Ventura Press for the free copy of this memoir and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

About the Author:

Lisa Dempster is the Artistic director and CEO of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Previous roles have included Asialink fellow at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Director of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Founding Director of EWFdigital (now Digital Writers' Festival) and publisher at Vignette Press. Lisa has travelled widely in search of literary and other adventures.

You may also enjoy:

Wild: From Lost to Found on... Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

No comments:

Post a Comment