23 July 2006

<i>Down Under</i>

Several people have recommended Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country to me recently and it seemed especially appropriate since I'm travelling to Australia in a couple of weeks. I spent a frustrating afternoon at Border's in Oxford looking for it, but couldn't find it among Bryson's other titles and the store computer had no record of it. The guy helping me said, "We've got something called Down Under, could that be it?"

"Nah," I replied, "the title definitely has 'sunburned country' somewhere in it. Thanks, though."

Of course, I realised on the bus home that In a Sunburned Country is of course published as Down Under in the UK. So a few days later than otherwise might have been the case, I acquired a copy and read it, mostly in the course of one very pleasurable rainy Saturday.

The only one of Bryson's other books I've read is A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is excellent, but, I think, slightly out of his forte. Down Under, on the other hand, is right in his wheelhouse. The New York Times Book Review puts it nicely: "The thing that Bryson most loves about Australia — its 'effortlessly dry, direct way of viewing the world' — is, in fact, his own. They're a perfect fit."

The book details Bryson's travels all over Australia on two separate trips, and as such features some excellent insight into the people and places there. From the perspective of someone about to visit (i.e. my own) this in and of itself makes the book a must-read "alternative guidebook". While certainly not written in the style of a travel guide, I repeatedly found myself thinking, "Wow, that would be an awesome place to visit." Of cousre, Australia's vastness (something Bryson harps on incessantly) means that my visit will only fractionally overlap with his, but I still gleaned a handful of things to look for that I might otherwise have never known.

What makes the book so wonderful, however, is Bryson's writing style on both the small and large scales. The book had me laughing out loud on nearly every page, and sincerely touched from time to time by his more serious reflections. Reading Bryson is like taking the trip yourself in the company of a convivial, wisecracking sidekick. His style blends both American and British humour and references (he's a Yank who's spent most of his adult life living in Britain) which obviously appeals to me a lot; his description of Cricket on the radio literally had me in stitches.

Even more impressive than the page-to-page adventures, however, is the subtle story arc through the whole book. A few themes are woven beautifully throughout: Australia's uncomfortable history with the Aboriginal people, the peculiarly hearwarming Australian character, the scope of how huge and unknown the continent is, and its isolation. I was simply amazed at his skill as a writer to simultaneously chronologically transcribe his own journey and wrap it in a story about the country as a whole. Somehow the two threads never conflicted with each other or seemed to be forced into riding along with the other: they seemed — at beginning, middle and end — to be in harmony.

Reading Down Under has made me eager to both visit Australia and to read more of Bryson's travel writings (his Notes from a Small Island was recently selected in the UK as the book that best sums up British identity - typical of English irony that he's American). For everyone else, I highly recommend this book which has both a wealth of information and also manages to be a fantastic piece of literature.

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