Today I’m pleased to share with you my review of one of my Christmas present books. Having visited several of the Australian locations in this book – Sydney, Canberra, Alice Springs, Uluru, Darwin, and the Great Barrier Reef, among several others – I loved reading about Bill Bryson’s experiences there in his brilliant piece of travel writing, Down Under.
Bill Bryson is the most engaging non-fiction writer: I was captivated by his mix of whimsical observations, self-deprecating anecdotes, hilarious remarks about the foibles of his travelling companion, and reports on overheard conversations. These are interspersed with occasional excursions into the history, geography, politics or scientific facts and curiosities about particular places. What I enjoy most is the feeling he gives the reader of moving in close to a subject, examining its quirkiest or most singular aspect, then panning out again to take a more distant or panoramic view.
He reserves his funniest writing for those occasions when he encounters total frustration and annoyance. I don’t think I will ever again be on my travels, up against an infuriating person, circumstance or chain of events, without wondering what Bill Bryson would make of this. He is at his best as a writer when things go wrong. Those of us who are non-fiction writers can all take heart from this. He gives a totally new complexion to the concept of ‘hard luck’, ‘missing out’, or ‘arriving too late’.
I think my favourite episode in the whole book is when Bill and his increasingly tetchy companion drive around Darwin several times trying to find a hotel whose name is unaccountably different from the name it went by when he booked it. When he finally arrives in the reception of the hotel he has now driven past several times, disgruntled and fractious, the receptionist makes it quite clear she has never heard the saying ‘the customer is always right’. Bill Bryson’s assessment of her, the hotel, and the people of Darwin would not look good on Trip Adviser. When I later checked this hotel out, I discovered that several travellers had indeed given it a very low star rating with a mixture of scornful comments.
Those who read Bill Bryson’s travel books must end up in two minds about whether or not they would like to be his travelling companion for one of his journeys: or indeed, one of the people he meets, chats with, or whose conversations he overhears and records. From my experience, people rarely recognise themselves in books, and of course, the author can always change the names. Would it be fun to agree to accompany Bill, or a decision they will never live down? I will now read Bill Bryson’s other travel books and continue to find great inspiration as a non-fiction writer.
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