A politician, a cooking contest winner, a troubled clergyman, a much-married socialite, a TV evangelist – what could they have in common? Why do they (and half a million others) travel to Oberammergau, the small German village that has staged a Passion Play every tenth year since 1634?

In a four-day bus trip, very different people are drawn together for diverse reasons, similar to the varied group whom Chaucer brought to life in his Canterbury Tales. But these travellers do not tell invented stories to entertain each other; they reveal to us with raw and often painful honesty their own lives and motives.

'This compelling travel narrative always bespeaks character, rather than landscape or hotel vestibule. Volk's swerve away from Chaucer creates for us a linking group of tourists, animated by their approach to a religious festival in Europe. Their story-telling, in her fluent verse, is utterly persuasive.' - Chris Wallace-Crabbe AM (Emeritus Professor in the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne and former Chair, Australian Poetry.)

Read more reviews and collapse each review by clicking on the title.

REVIEW: Professor Doreen Rosenthal.

Inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Valerie Volk places her modern pilgrims in a bus en route to the Oberammergau Passion Play.  This brilliantly conceived verse novel is a riveting read as Volk’s travellers tell their stories. There’s no shortage of deadly sins as we read of murder, greed, venality and more; the impact of lesser sins is well represented too – guilt, regret, shame, remorse. The Oberammergau Tales unerringly skewers human frailties, often humorously, but with a generous and empathic response to the self-revelation in the tales told by these troubled individuals. This is a book that resists being put aside at the end of the day and one that will captivate those of us who have ever sat on a tour bus and wondered about the private lives of our fellow travellers. A 21st century Canterbury Tales indeed.

Professor Doreen Rosenthal - Psychologist and writer.

REVIEW: Bruce Dawe.

These modern pilgrims to a mediaeval town are driven, not by a common cultural identity and a common religious passion and desire to be freed from the plague, but by individualized guilt stemming from their own personal histories   ....  In these pilgrims we are constantly reminded of the 3Ls:  life, love, and loss .... What anchors this work so firmly in the mind (and heart) is the over-riding sense of mortality which has as many histories as the pilgrimage has faces.

Bruce Dawe - Poet

REVIEW: Professor Jenny Gribble.

Not the least of her gifts is that she grabs and keeps the reader's attention with the unfolding human interest of these stories and her command of their many voices and registers – and that she persuades us that verse, with its particular authority and resonance, is their natural medium. As with Chaucer, all human life is here, as we live it now, and have done through our century of history.

Emeritus Professor Jenny Gribble, University of Sydney

REVIEW: Coral Hartley, The Write Angle, December 2013.

A most spirited, innovative parallel to Chaucer’s classic Canterbury Tales, which related to a group of pilgrims footing it to Canterbury Cathedral. Volk’s characters are modern counterparts of those early travellers. Their journey via tourist bus is not necessarily a religious pilgrimage to Oberammergau, but, for some, a form of catharsis. This juxtaposition of medieval and modern makes a superb vehicle for Valerie Volk’s storytelling expertise.

These twenty soul-searchers are accompanied by Caroline, a nosy journalist, with her own tormenting secret, that of being the “other woman”. The question arises in the reader’s mind as to what will transpire for this hopelessly lovelorn woman. In a story that is not noticeably plot-driven, Caroline is the ‘glue’ that integrates the broad assortment of distinctively penetrating character portrayals. Will the experience of the Oberammergau Passion Play give her, or any of them, a different perspective, a recapitulation??

The cast of characters, a colourful crowd described by Caroline at least as diverse as Chaucer’s lot! A motley crew, do not all find romantic solutions to their lonely lives, though for some that is the main objective of their journey. The author explores with relentless honesty and explicit language many of society’s saddest and sourest deals by an unkind fate. For most of this engrossing book, fate has been extremely unkind! No laughs ...

The questions multiply: Will the Oberammergau experience offer new courage where despair rides high? Will there be a new life-force returning to the vanquished? Will the crooked barrister be absolved of his guilt-complex? Volk’s characters, drawn from many differing walks of life are all driven by the human frailties of selfishness, vanity, remorse or greed, exactly as one finds in real life! This is a moving confessional of 320 pages, where private pain is exposed, and real life is at all times mirrored. One of Chaucer’s 14th C pilgrims is the archetype for each of Volk’s harried travellers.

The effects of the Passion Play itself, enacted every tenth year, is described through the eyes of all characters, wisely not sermonised but left to be answered by the simple expedient of a questionaire in the bus, returning from the village.

All is written in flawless verse by a masterly exponent of the poetic arts. For lovers of poetry it is a must read. A second reading is even more rewarding, to lift out the subtleties, relish the beautiful phrasing, and wander with Dr Volk’s ‘motley crew’, the bus-ways and byways of Germany as she herself experienced it.!

Review by Coral Hartley, The Write Angle, December 2013

REVIEW: Peter Pierce, Canberra Times - Panorama Magazine, December 2013.

Brilliantly conceived and artfully constructed, Valerie Volk’s verse novel Passion Play: The Oberammergau Tales is one of the late highlights of the year in books.

Volk has written an earlier verse novel, A Promise of Peaches, and rewritten the familiar folk material of the Brothers Grimm as Even Grimmer Tales. Her subject and setting are again German. Every 10 years since 1633, and in order to celebrate its deliverance from the plague, more than half the inhabitants of the small Bavarian town of Oberammergau stage a months-long series of Passion Plays to celebrate the story of Christ.

More than half a million attend, whether they see themselves as tourists or pilgrims. Using as her point of reference the tales told by some of the pilgrims to Canterbury Cathedral in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Volk concentrates on one busload of travelers to Oberammergau in order to find out who they are and why they have come.

Her prologue tells the story of how “Oberammergau had made itself / a place forbidden to the outside world”.

Yet, anxious to be reunited with his family, Kaspar Schisler “makes secretly his journey / through tiny obscure mountain passes / and brings with him the plague”.

He is the first of a number of characters in the book who are, in Volk’s words, “caught in a web of guilt”. Introducing them to us in Caroline, a newspaper features writer who is on assignment from her editor to write of the pilgrims’ motives and their personal stories. He is also her lover and she suspects that he may be ready to end the affair. Caroline is tasked to use her professional skills to draw these people out.

Some need little encouragement. The barrister Tom Gillooley launches into self-justification to a captive audience. Others have much that is shameful either to hide or to try to justify.

In the same manner as Chaucer, Volk’s characters are matched to their tales. Jethro Jones, a meretricious American television evangelist, is paired with Chaucer’s Pardoner. Each preaches fervently and persuasively in favour of avarice.

Counterpart of Alicia, the “much-married socialite”, is the Wife of Bath. Alicia recognizes Caroline as one who has interviewed her before but does not blow the cover. Rather she takes the chance to give advice: “Appearance of compromise, accommodation / pliancy, but don’t engage the heart”. Further: “My dear, you must learn not to blush ... / girlish habit that charms only in the very young”.

For her own part, Alicia has decided on a fifth husband who is also of this party. We have already heard from Francis the wine merchant of the many advances he has received: “I half regret I haven’t kept / a widower’s logbook!” No need for one now.

Volk explores how her cast came to assemble. Some are returning. Some have come by chance. One, a Vietnam veteran, is honouring a promise to a dying mate; another to a wife sunk in Alzheimer’s, a third (winner of a TV chef competition) because of a vow to her late grandmother.

Others have journeyed to Oberammergau to commit acts of atonement, sometimes because of their adulterous or other kinds of betrayal. For instance the scientist, Stephen, has appropriated the research of a younger colleague who died in a motorbike accident.

In dramatic monologues the characters often reveal their guilt and also their hope for expiation.

Others, such as Justin the ecclesiastical bureaucrat who is angling for a bishopric, give a revealing self-portrait of dissembling, bad faith and self-delusion.

Volk’s control of all of them is masterly. This is a dark social comedy on a generous scale whose nearest recent counterpart among verse novels is Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers. Volk’s Passion Play is, however, a sophisticated adult entertainment that confidently and admirably stands alone. Or perhaps not altogether; this year has also seen the first-rate debut of Valerie Volk’s daughter, Felicity, with the novel, Lightning. It’s as good a package deal for Christmas as can be recommended.

Peter Pierce, Canberra Times (Panorama Magazine) 14 December, 2013

REVIEW: Kerry Goldsworthy, The Melbourne Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, December, 2013.

With Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as its model, this is an extraordinary verse novel about contemporary pilgrims. Their destination is not Canterbury but the little German town of Oberammergau, where for almost four centuries, once every 10 years, a passion play representing the events of Easter week has been staged. Tourists from all over the world descend on Oberammergau to witness this, but as Volk says in her introduction, many of these people might be better thought of as pilgrims, all carrying their own loads of secrets and guilt.

This is the premise on which 21 assorted characters tell their tales in conversational free verse, its language and rhythms subtly tailored to each different personality, though they don’t so much tell stories as reflect on the life events that have brought them to this place. The book is highly original and totally engaging, and provides much food for thought about human nature.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, The Melbourne Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, 7 December, 2013

REVIEW: Katharine England, Adelaide Advertiser, January 2014.

Decades of teaching Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales to senior English students not only convinced Adelaide poet Valerie Volk that the work is one of the greatest in Western literature, but inspired her to write her own modern version of this “magnificent tapestry of life.”

Chaucer’s pilgrims were journeying to Canterbury, Volk chose Oberammergau and the Passion Play that has been performed there every ten years since 1634 as the goal of her 21st century pilgrims. Chaucer’s characters regaled one another with fictional stories of the day, Volk’s recount their varied individual motivations for being where they find themselves – in a group of 20+ strangers on a four-day bus tour that is to culminate in a religious play that is performed in a vast arena by half the inhabitants of a Bavarian village.

As with Chaucer – and one of the joys of the book is the comedic cunning with which Volk has paired her modern characters with his medieval ones – few of the pilgrims present as the pious souls one might expect to be making the penitential journey. There are three very different men of the cloth: a TV evangelist, a church leader impatiently waiting preferment and a parish priest experiencing a crisis of faith, but there are also among the large cast a cabinet minister with his wife and newly acknowledged teenage son by another woman, a Vietnam veteran, a professional footballer, an ageing Lothario of a pilot, the mousy winner of a cooking contest, and five slightly embarrassed foundry workers paying off an unspoken debt to one of their number.

The prologue, set in 1633, obliquely dramatizes the play’s origins as an offering promised in return for the village’s deliverance from the plague, then Caroline, a journalist researching the story at the behest of her editor/married lover, introduces her busload of pilgrims, sketching the externals, appearances, attitudes, but leaving the details to be revealed by each character’s internal monologue. The bulk of the book is taken up with these often intense individual accounts, so that readers may start to wonder how the performance itself and its effects upon the different characters can all be fitted in, but we are in capable hands: we glimpse the play through the eyes of the last few characters and learn how our pilgrims have responded to their experience – the slight movements of the heart that presage larger, later changes of behaviour – through that entertainingly ubiquitous modern device, the evaluation form, handed out on the bus next day by the capable German tour guide.

The whole saga is in verse, each tale introduced by a stanza in Chaucer’s now barely comprehensible English and the cover, frankly, does the book no favours, but readers should not be put off: the free verse is flexible and beautifully lean, an ideal medium for the pen-portrait and the interior monologue, the Chaucerian language is poetically decoded below each quotation to make the tantalizing link between the ancient and the modern, and the plot, or series of plots – so many well-drawn characters, so many complex lives, so much intriguing venality – is as readable, engaging and cleverly shaped as any good novel.

 Katharine England, Adelaide Advertiser (SA Weekend Magazine), 18 January, 2014.

REVIEW: Cordite Poetry Journal Tamryn Bennett  9 April, 2014

            What are their stories?
            what compulsions bring them here,
            to this small village in the valley
            beneath its towering mountains? (21)

Invoking Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in structure and with a ‘motley crew’ of pilgrims, Volk’s Passion Play: The Oberammergau Tales assembles a cross-section of modern society cloaked in secrecy and scepticism. Where Chaucer’s travellers are drawn together by a story-telling competition, Volk’s pilgrims are united by a four-day bus tour to the German town of Oberammergau for the ritual of the Passion Play. Every tenth year, since 1634, Oberammergau has staged this event of epic proportion to honour a plague promise:

             The vows they made to God
             that if he spared their village
             they would offer to him, time on time,
             performance of a passion play,
             a presentation of Christ’s suffering and death. (19)

Volk succeeds in recasting Chaucer’s medieval crew, now ‘a school principal’, ‘a much-married socialite’, and ‘a TV evangelist’. But it isn’t religious devotion that compels these pilgrims, rather a web of guilt and longing that ignites their search for salvation. Each of Volk’s pilgrims has a secret past; a past that forces them to question their future. For Caroline (The narrator), an unrequited romance; for Douglas (The Knight’s Tale), a question of forgiveness from the wife he’s betrayed and the bastard son he’s hidden for 20 years; and for Elinor (The Prioress), uncertainty of thawing a hardened heart.

Pushed by her boss (and bed friend), Caroline journeys to Oberammergau under the guise of a travel feature – a foggy pretence that even her fellow travellers begin to see through as she digs into their motivations for making the trip. With Caroline trawling for stories the Oberammergau cast turn inwards, confessing in a series of dramatic monologues that chart a path from The Knight’s Tale to The Parson’s Tale. These monologues plumb the depths of human experience, though at times narrative pace is given preference over the potential to linger in imagery, as in Elinor’s confession;

            Huge dream-time clouds,
            black and thunderous,
            loom close above us.


            I reach for her – but this is where the dream         
            Tonight has ended. So still I do not know.
            When I reached out
            Was it to hold?   
            Or did I push? (88 – 89) 

These ‘dream-time clouds’ spark a desire to climb into Elinor’s subconscious, to see her stripped of the façade she hides behind in waking, to trace the fault-lines and frailty that make her human. Yet Volk is careful to not to let her characters or audience wallow in storms of remorse. Instead, fervent questions connect and drive the narrative confessions, offering windows into the complexity of Volk’s modern pilgrims and their journey for answers.

Death also ties Volk’s other cast members to the tour. Through tales of grief and guilt, Francis, the wine merchant, is knotted to Stephen, a scientist who wrongfully accepts a research award following the loss of his colleague. For Luke, the death of his mother means the opportunity to collapse his father’s career, while The Wife of Bath’s stand-in recalls the ghosts of three husbands and the gradual vanishing of her identity with them. These questions of identity serve as reminders of our temporality – reminders that our preoccupation with carefully constructing our selves and our stories will one day disappear. We are reminded that history is only ever in our hands for a moment as Caroline closes

         I am indeed a part
         of all those I have met
         and must learn who I am. (324)

Tamryn Bennett   Cordite Poetry Journal, 9th April, 2014, 9th April, 2014

REVIEW: Transnational Literature, Emily Sutherland, May, 2014

Valerie Volk,Passion Play: The Oberammergau Tales (Wakefield Press, 2013)

It was Newton who said: ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’. Something similar could be said by many of the authors who are inspired by writers who have gone before them. Valerie Volk, in her verse novel, may not have seen further than Chaucer, but she has seen him from a different angle and that makes for an interesting and evocative narrative. In doing so, she draws on the richness of Chaucer’s characters and the charm of their stories. But by putting her verse novel into a modern context, she has allowed herself a greater freedom to explore the thoughts and motivation of the pilgrims in a way that will resonate with contemporary readers.


Volk’s pilgrims are not riding to Canterbury, but travelling in a bus to Oberammergau, Germany, for the Passion play that has been staged there every ten years since 1634. Their journey takes four days, which matches the time span in Canterbury Tales – and the characters portrayed by Volk match those in Chaucer’s poem. In case the reader is not familiar with Chaucer, the contents page lists the characters in Passion Play against those in Chaucer, and each section is prefaced by a verse from Chaucer. I wondered if this was necessary, as the characters do stand complete in their own right, but undoubtedly part of the interest of the novel is its reference to the medieval poet. One feature not found in Chaucer is the character of Caroline, a journalist who has joined the pilgrimage in search of a good story for her magazine, while using the time away from her married lover to assess their relationship. Caroline moves the narrative along while allowing us to see the pilgrims through another’s eyes. In the same way, the reader is allowed access to the thoughts of the pilgrims, a privilege not allowed Caroline, nor one allowed by Chaucer.

The Prologue explains the way the tradition of the play came into being with a confession by the man who brought the plague to Oberammergau in 1633, by returning to his wife and family from the village where he had been working in a village where the plague was rampant. The Passion play and the villagers’ promise to repeat it every ten years was their way to placate God and end the plague. The man who had brought the infection to the village found no relief:


I must accept the truth, the truth I have denied

I knew full well what I was doing

When I came back.

It was my choice to come.

The guilt is mine. (11)


The narrative then moves to the twenty-first century, as we meet Caroline, who sets off rather reluctantly to undertake the journey as an journalistic assignment. As the story progresses, we see her changed both by the stories she is hearing from the pilgrims and also by her own reaction to the Passion play, and the story that it enacts.


Few of the pilgrims are motivated by religious fervour, but all are in some way affected by what they see. All have a story to tell, and Caroline makes it her business to ferret out these stories.


It is impossible in this review to outline all the characters but The Wife of Bath, or her alter ego, will give a glimpse:


Yes, marriage can become a habit, just like any other.

And, after all, If anyone should know this,

Surely I’m the one. Four husbands down the track –

Another poised there on the starting blocks –

You must agree that I am qualified

To talk about the state of wedded bliss. (111)


Some readers may feel a little reluctant to begin a verse novel, thinking of it as a very long and difficult poem. Reading Passion Play will dispel that myth. The text moves comfortably and smoothly, falling into place with a natural rhythm. Volk has also succeeded in capturing the voice of each pilgrim with striking individuality. Consider, for example, Josef the Plowman, describing how he had to shoot his animals in a time of drought:

Fair broke her heart – and mine –

That morning I went out and shot the lot

No choice.            

They were half dead of thirst in any case.

And scrawny. No fodder.(202)


Stephen, the Scholar, regards his fellow pilgrims with contempt, while trying to repress his own guilt that he had used another scientist’s work:


But now it haunts me.

I am a thief who shrugs his shoulders,

Justifies his acts, but can no longer

See his mirrored face without recoil. (99)


The bus taking the pilgrims to Oberammergau transports a diverse group of pilgrims, just as did Chaucer’s cavalcade to Canterbury. We come to know their stories and we learn how the play itself affects each in a different way. Some find a type of redemption; others come to face themselves more honestly. None is the same person as the one who had set out four days before. Caroline has the last word:


I am indeed a part

Of all those I have met,

and must learn who I am.

Endings are beginnings.

So while I cannot see what lies ahead,

My journey too must end

As I return from Oberammergau. (324)


Emily Sutherland. Transnational Literature Vol. 6 no. 2, May,2014

REVIEW:The Lutheran:Nick Mattiske, July, 2014


Passion Play: The Oberammergau Tales, Valerie Volk, Wakefield Press

Pilgrimages are not generally thought of as the stuff of Protestants or non-believers. But many in our modern society do still go on pilgrimages, even if they are not named as such. For some, it may be war sites or art galleries. For Lutherans, the destinations may be Jerusalem, Wittenberg or the Barossa.

Valerie Volk’s book centres on a pilgrimage of sorts to Oberammergau in Germany, famous for its passion play held every ten years. She has taught The Canterbury Tales for many years, and models her book on Chaucer’s famous depiction of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales, as scholar Sheila Fisher tells us in the introduction to her recent translation, is something of a neglected classic, even while we are given endless variations of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. But Chaucer’s work is extraordinary – innovative in its use of language and its introduction to English of new modes of poetry, and in its variety of portraiture. Volk’s book is not innovative in this sense. She replicates Chaucer’s series of life sketches, and is perhaps brave (in our modern, poetry-allergic era) in sticking to verse. However she innovates by placing the characters in a new time and place – the wife of Bath becomes a modern day gold-digging husband chaser, the cook is a celebrity chef, the ploughman is a Wimmera farmer of Silesian stock, and the squire is a punk with a drug habit. It would be a shame if the structure of the book put readers off, because this is a skilled and forceful rendering.

Chaucer’s work displays a bawdy medieval sensibility (much like Luther’s sometimes alarmingly scatological sense of humour). Pious readers may also be unsettled by Volk’s occasional crude language and frank discussions of sexuality. These pilgrims are not model citizens. They are scheming, sceptical and flawed. Or sometimes just earthy. Volk’s intention is to give us real people just as she gives us “types”, and she ventriloquizes masterfully as she inhabits the headspace of each individual, giving them realistic life stories and unique voices. As popular historian Peter Ackroyd notes of Chaucer’s originals, these characters are both “highly individualised and typically representative”.

As with Chaucer’s characters, there is appearance and there is reality. As with most (all?) of us, there is brokenness that has been badly patched or papered over. These pilgrims have vulnerabilities they cannot share, and pain that is pushed down out of sight. On display is a Lutheran idea of sin as a state rather than an individual act; of the sinner being “miserable” (as we in the Lutheran Church used to confess it), in the sense more of “sad” than “irredeemable”. Volk’s pilgrims display a world-weary emptiness and displacement, sometime masked by bravado, but they are somehow drawn to this two millennia-old story of brokenness and redemption that is re-enacted at Oberammergau. They have an inkling that while this religious stuff should be for people other than themselves, there may just be something in it.

Nick Mattiske: The Lutheran. July, 2014

REVIEW: Studio, Paul Grover, December 2014

Passion Play: The Oberammergau Tales

Reviewed by Paul Grover     Studio, December, 2014

This is a quite unique and highly contemporary book – a verse novel based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but brought into the 21st century via a four-day bus trip to the Oberammergau Passion Play, held once every ten years in this small German town. It is a pointed, barbed, witty and insightful journey through the flaws, foibles and fates of twenty-one modern-day pilgrims who examine the world around them, and within, as they get closer to their destination. Life is a journey, not a destination.

Like Chaucer’s classic pilgrims, this contemporary group of travellers comes from a wide range of backgrounds and life experiences, including a TV chef winner, a much-married socialite, a barrister, an American TV evangelist, a Vietnam veteran and a politician. But unlike Chaucer’s originals, these people do not tell each other stories to fill in time on the journey, but instead regale their companions with highly entertaining dramatic monologues rich with observations and insights gleaned from their diverse life experiences.

In her review, Doreen Rosenthal succinctly located the strength and depth of this new book:

This brilliantly conceived verse novel is a riveting read as Volk’s travellers tell their stories. There’s no shortage of deadly sins as we read of murder, greed, venality and more; the impact of lesser sins is well represented too – guilt, regret, shame, remorse. The Oberammergau Tales unerringly skewers human frailties, often humorously, but with a generous and empathic response to the self-revelation in the tales told by these troubled individuals.

The author, Valerie Volk, has captured this range of personalities through a rich range of voices, and these voices are particularly suited to the verse form that animates these stories, as well as animating these characters and the events recounted. The book’s narrator is a journalist, and as with any journalist, she wants to uncover the stories in each person’s life, and their reasons for coming on this journey to the Passion Play. But what she discovers is the unexpected, as do the travellers themselves, during this trip to Oberammergau and on the return journey as well.

The author provides a link between each individual and one person from Chaucer ‘s tales as each is introduced to us, providing an additional connection to the personalities of The Canterbury Tales. Peter Pierce, writing in The Canberra Times, gives a taste of the diversity of personalities and motivations for their journeys in this highly engaging book:

Volk explores how her cast came to assemble. Some are returning. Some have come by chance. One, a Vietnam veteran, is honouring a promise to a dying mate; another to a wife sunk in Alzheimer’s, a third (winner of a TV chef competition) because of a vow to her late grandmother.
Others have journeyed to Oberammergau to commit acts of atonement, sometimes because of their adulterous or other kinds of betrayal. For instance the scientist, Stephen, has appropriated the research of a younger colleague who died in a motorbike accident.In dramatic monologues the characters often reveal their guilt and also their hope for expiation.
Others, such as Justin the ecclesiastical bureaucrat who is angling for a bishopric, give a revealing self-portrait of dissembling, bad faith and self-delusion. Volk’s control of all of them is masterly.

The book is one to read and then re-read, as the rich and complex connections between and within these characters, the Passion Play itself and the life events they explore are rewarded with reflection, and an opportunity to re-join them on a very human journey.

REVIEW: Studio, Susan Polites, December 2014

PASSION PLAY                                             

Reviewed by Sue Polites

Have you ever sat on a tour bus and wondered about the private lives of your fellow-travellers? This verse novel tells the story of thirty people and their bus driver, travelling to Oberammergau in Germany for the Passion Play that is staged there every ten years.

In the Prologue we learn the origin of the tradition – the devastating plague of 1634 – and we are introduced to the themes of guilt and redemption that impel both the history of the play and the lives of the modern-day travellers. A parallel is drawn with the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who whiled away the long, slow hours of their pilgrimage to Canterbury by telling stories, each one revealing much about the character of the storyteller. The modern day pilgrims in Passion Play don’t tell stories to entertain each other; nonetheless, through their thoughts and their conversations much is revealed about their lives and their values.

It is riveting reading. As the four-day pilgrimage unfolds, past and present are linked by human frailty and guilt. The stories of the medieval plague victims, Chaucer’s pilgrims and the present day travellers are woven together into a timeless pattern of weakness and perpetual hope of redemption that inevitably includes the reader as well.

Valerie Volk has an extensive academic background and has published award-winning poetry, short fiction and verse novels. In Passion Play her verse is fluent and unobtrusive, ideally suited to the reflective unfolding of both the journey and the thoughts of the travellers.

This is a book that is hard to put down, and when the end is reached there is still plenty to think about. How are the revelations and realizations of each character’s experience affecting his or her life and ongoing behaviour? It is one of those books that remains in the mind for a long time.

REVIEW: Polestar Writers' Journal, Julie Lucas, May 2015


Passion Play

Reviewer: Julie Lucas 

Valerie Volk has created a 21st century Canterbury Tales around some of the half million people who travel to Oberammergau for the passion play which this small German village has staged every tenth year since 1634. In commenting on Passion Play, Bruce Dawe said that these ‘modern pilgrims in a medieval town’ are driven by the three l’s – ‘Life, love and loss.’ Passion Play is a verse novel, a tricky form to master, but Volk does it brilliantly.

 In ‘Douglas – the Knight’s Tale’, the medieval counterpart is transformed into a government minister full of good intentions who has fathered a child with a woman who wanted one, while he remained married. Inevitably he is driven to muse on truth:

 ‘Truth’s like that – a slippery little number.
  You think you have it nailed, but then it slides away,
  and you are left once more with flimsy residues
 of what you thought were tablets carved in stone.

Confronted by his son, who tells him:

            ‘Mum said to me before she died
            that you’re my father. Is it true?’

Terrorised by the media when the story breaks:

            ‘Will you resign?’
            ‘Minister, will you contest your seat again?’

This ‘verray parfit knight’ has pressures and stresses unimaginable to his model in the Canterbury Tales.

 Alicia, Volk’s version of the Wife of Bath, is a deliciously louche woman, well-lived and well-loved. Being interviewed and saying with some pride ‘The gossip columnists have found me fascinating.’ She is the Liz Taylor of the Canterbury Tales. Five husbands, ‘apart from other company in youth’ has led her to an epiphany: ‘For woman as for man, the battle of the sexes is the core of life.’ She shares the epiphany with the female interviewer, and adds the observation:

            ‘You’re young. You’ll learn the truth
             of what I say.’

She muses with great irony on her past self:

            ‘Like you, I once was trusting, quite deluded,
             believed the promises men made.’

But now she knows the fundamental truth.’

            ‘A woman is a fool if she becomes dependent on a man.’

Now, older and wiser, she has learned her lesson well. Life is a series of roles we play and nothing more and a woman must play the role self-interest dictates: using her body to catch a mate and to advance and promote her financial security.

 Volk sums Alicia up perfectly and not without pathos when she writes:

            ‘Beneath the Ali, Alys, Lee and Lissy
            all the personas that I have assumed,
            is there a person who exists quite independent
           of men who moulded me?
           Who is Alicia?

 This is a book to savour and the portraits of each pilgrim are bite-sized, just right to enjoy with a coffee or a glass of wine.  Each one is packed with brilliant psychological insights into human nature.

Passion Play Poetry

Caroline – the journalist

I note the way in which our hostess
makes determined efforts to create
a truly ‘happy hour.’ Her eyes are
sheepdogs, gathering together strays
who have not yet merged with the flock.

With practised ease she notes a single man,
who clearly seeks to stay detached,
and like a tug-boat draws him
through billowing crowds
to where I stand alone.


Alicia – the socialite

Yes, marriage can become a habit,
just like any other. And, after all,
if anyone should know this,
surely I’m the one. Four husbands down the track –
another poised there on the starting blocks –
you must agree that I am qualified
to talk about the state of wedded bliss.


Alexander – company director

Did he indeed escape?”
I pondered, could not answer.
I thought of that sad lonely man,
who sat each night with only ledger sheets
and loss and profit statements as his friends.
“How can I tell?
Does anyone escape what they have done?


Tommo  - Vietnam Veteran

The jungle’s like a beast;
It breathes its menace every move you make.
The rubber trees in all their rows – you never knew
just where the Cong were hiding. And even worse
the paddy fields. No cover there. You couldn’t dare
put down your foot without the fear next minute
hidden mines would take you straight to hell.
nother hell, that is.


Al – ex-footballer

He couldn’t have been keeping up with news.
All over telly and the papers when they
‘let me go.’ I never thought a quiet bet or two
would ever come back, bite me in the bum.
You’d think sports writers should have
more to do than muck rake like they do.
They’ll always find a pot to piss in.


Tom  -  criminal barrister

An unkind word. I’ll grant you that
some of my cases may have been
a little on the seamy side, to put it mildly.
People tend to hear my name, and then
pre-judge the issue. Must be a criminal,
if Tom Gillooley’s taking the defence.


Caroline - journalist

In spite of all my scepticism.
my doubts, my uncertainties,
this journey has brought changes.
I laughed at the idea of pilgrimage.
So glib.

I am indeed a part
of all those I have met,
and must learn who I am.

Endings are beginnings.
My journey too must end
as I return from Oberammergau.