Australia, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Cees Nooteboom, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Lost Paradise’ by Cees Nooteboom

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 151 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Cees Nooteboom’s Lost Paradise, which is split into two seemingly unconnected parts that eventually come together in a not particularly convincing way.

Nooteboom is a Dutch writer with a hefty body of work, spanning poetry to travel writing, to his name, as well as a slew of literary awards. Lost Paradise, his 12th novel, was first published in 2004 and translated into English in 2007.

Unusually (for a Dutch writer), the story is largely set in Australia.

A novel in two parts

The first part focuses on two young Brazilian women, (the confusingly named) Alma and Almut, who are obsessed with Aboriginal Australians. They travel to Australia to learn about this ancient culture and to make their dream of visiting the “Aboriginal Sickness Dreaming Place” come true.

Toward the end of their journey, which takes in Adelaide and Alice Springs (among other places), they arrive in Perth, where they take part in an international arts festival event called The Angel Project. (This, apparently, was a real art installation, staged across 13 sites for the Perth International Festival of the Arts in 2000. It has also been held in London and New York.) Here, they are required to dress as angels and remain as still as statues in places dotted around the city.

The second part is about a middle-aged literary critic, Erik Zondag, who travels from Amsterdam to Austria to stay at a remote spa resort on the advice of his girlfriend who wants him to return a changed man. While there he encounters a woman with whom he once spent the night in Perth many years earlier, a woman he still occasionally thinks about, a woman who was, at the time, dressed as an angel.

And hence, you have the unlikely connection between these two seemingly disparate halves of the one book.

An outsider’s view

One element of Lost Paradise that works is the outsider’s view of Australia, the realisation that the outback is inhospitable — and completely alien — if you are unfamiliar with it. Here’s how Alma describes it:

We get out of the vehicle beside a river. The silence is broken by unknown sounds. ‘CROCODILES FREQUENT THIS AREA. KEEP CHILDREN AND DOGS AWAY FROM THE WATER’S EDGE.’ I stare at the gleaming black surface, at the red soil beneath my feet, at the dry eucalyptus leaves, curled into the shapes of letters as if they had been shaken from a tray of type. There is very little traffic on this road, so we are alone in our cloud of dust. The few cars coming towards us can be seen from miles off, like clouds or apparitions.

Similarly, Erik’s sudden awareness of the sheer size of the country is brought vividly to life in this passage:

It had been summer when he arrived in Perth. He had never been cooped up in a plane fror so long. The 18 hours to Sydney had been followed by a flight across a Continent with a population only slightly larger than that of the Netherlands, though it was nearly as big as the United States. Much of the land was empty: a rocky, sunburnt, sand-coloured desert, where the Aborigines had led their unwatched, automomous lives for thousands of years. The others — the sheep ranchers and the wine growers — lived on the periphery.

But this slim volume also explores bigger — and more complex — themes related to why we travel, what we hope to escape from and what we wish to find. There’s an emphasis on literature and art. Angels are a recurring theme — “Angels do not exist and yet they are divided into orders much like the hierarchy in an army” — and there are many nods to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The prose style is sparse and elegant, beautifully translated by Susan Massotty, and reading it feels very much as if you are caught up in a dream. It’s sad and lonely and haunting.

But for all that, there’s no doubting this is an odd book. I came away from it unable to decide whether it might be just an old white man’s self-indulgent fantasy or a slice of understated genius. And weeks after having finished it, I still don’t know…

Australia, Author, Book review, Chris Womersley, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Bereft’ by Chris Womersley


Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 340 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a beautifully realised tale about a Great War soldier returning to his homeland to right a terrible injustice done to him and his murdered sister some ten years earlier. It’s occasionally billed as a crime novel, but I think it’s more akin to literary fiction. Whatever you call it, it’s a terrific read — emotional, involving and thought-provoking.

A claustrophobic time

Bereft is set in 1919 in rural New South Wales. The Spanish flu epidemic is in full swing, and borders between states are closed to stop the spread of the contagion.

In this claustrophobic and occasionally terrifying world, we meet Quinn Walker. Quinn has returned from the Great War, where he served in France and Turkey. He is beset by painful coughing fits from having been gassed and has an ugly scar along his jawline. “You should do something about your face. Cover it up perhaps?” a stranger tells him. “You are frightening the children, you know?”

But there is one child that Quinn does not frighten — and her name is Sadie Fox. She is 12 and has recently been orphaned. She’s hiding out in the hills in an old shack awaiting the arrival of her older brother who went to war. She befriends Quinn and urges him to hide out with her. That’s because Quinn can’t show his face in town — and it is nothing to do with the scar on his jaw.

Laying ghosts of past to rest

In the short prologue to this book, we learn that Quinn was accused of murdering his younger sister in 1909. But before he could be arrested he fled the town — and he has been on the run ever since. He knows that many of the townsmen, including his uncle and his father, want him to hang for the crime.

To put things right, a decade on, he needs to get his mother on side and to confess to her what he knows. But his mother is now dying of influenza and has been quarantined in the family home. The only person who visits her inside the house is her doctor. Her husband, fearful of infection, is living elsewhere (he stands on the veranda and speaks to her through her open bedroom window when he visits).

Quinn, feeling he has nothing to lose, slips into his mother’s bedroom and so begins the process of reconciling the past with the present. His mother initially thinks she is hallucinating — “You resemble my son” — but soon comes to realise that Quinn, thought dead on the battlefield (there is a telegram to prove it), has returned.

Quinn’s tragic story then unfolds via a series of secret conversations with this mother and more personal conversations with bold-as-brass Sadie. And these, in turn, are interlaced with flashbacks to his terrible time at war, memories from his carefree childhood and the events that happened on the day of his sister’s murder.

Restrained and eloquent prose

There’s a quiet, understated style to Womersley’s writing. But despite the restraint of his prose, there’s something quite moving about the way in which he depicts Quinn’s predicament, caught between wanting to clear his name and not wanting to hurt his mother, and all the while coming to terms with the terrible things he witnessed at war, the grief he still feels for his sister and the pain of being ostracised by his family.

And his relationship with the mysterious, witch-like Sadie is beautifully captured. She’s a wonderful character — quirky and brave and resolutely independent — who doubles for the sister Quinn once lost.

Of course, as with most Australian novels, the narrative is strongly tied to the landscape and there are vivid descriptions of the scenery and the wildlife and of the “crackle and hum of the bush”. But, for me, the book’s focus on the war and its personal aftermath is its greatest strength, because Womersley so perfectly captures Quinn’s sense of dislocation, his physical and mental torment, and his struggle to keep going when it would be easier to put an end to it all.

Bereft was longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award and the CWA Gold Dagger, and shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year, the 2011 Miles Franklin Award, the ASL Gold Medal for Literature and the Ned Kelly Award for Fiction. It won the 2011 ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the 2011 Indie Award for Best Novel.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 354 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Alex Miller is a London-born Australian writer with nine novels to his name. Two of these — The Ancestor Game (1993) and Journey to the Stone Country (2003) — have earned him the Miles Franklin Literary Award. His most recent novel, Lovesong, was released in Australia in 2009 but has just been published in the UK for the first time.

Having never read any of Miller’s work before — I’ve got three of his novels in my always-growing To Be Read pile — I was anxious to see if this one would live up to the high praise I had heard about. The short answer is this: it did. The long answer is the review which follows.

Lovesong is a story within a story. It’s not exactly metafiction, but it comes close. An elderly novelist searching for a subject to write about meets a middle-aged man with a story to tell.

Ken is on the verge of retirement (“My last novel was always going to be my last novel”), who lives with his 38-year-old daughter, Clare. Their relationship isn’t exactly fraught, but there are clearly tensions between them. And it doesn’t help that Clare only moved in for a few weeks when she was newly separated from her husband — and that was five years ago!

One day Ken notices a new pastry shop in his local neighbourhood, run by an intriguing couple: a North African woman in her early 40s — beautiful and self-possessed, but with a deep sadness in her eyes — and her Australian school teacher husband. They have a pretty six-year-old daughter.

Ken becomes slightly obsessed with them and wants to find out how they met, “this Aussie bloke and his exotic bride”, and engineers a meeting with the husband, John Patterner. Over the course of many afternoons, lingering over coffee in a local cafe, John tells Ken his story.

The story of himself and his wife, Sabiha, the beautiful woman from Tunisia whom he had married in Paris when he was a young man and she was little more than a girl. And the beautiful and terrible story of their little daughter Houria.

Ken then spends his evenings secretly typing up what he has been told. He can’t help himself: he needs to write — “During my life I had acquired no skills for not working and I soon found that not writing a book was harder than writing one was” — and these form the bulk of the novel Lovesong. What he had initially predicted as a “simple love story” is far more complicated, and tragic, than he ever could imagine.

John and Sabiha’s tale begins beautifully — and romantically — and brims with optimism for the future. But the couple work so hard running a busy and successful cafe in a seedy suburb of Paris that there is little time for anything else in their lives. By the time they realise they want different things — for Sabiha, a much longed for child, and for John, a permanent return to Australia — years have passed and it might be too late.

Lovesong is, indeed, just that: a love song. But it’s also a story about regret, about thwarted dreams, about the ways in which love between two people can change over time. It is incredibly romantic, but authentic — Miller really gets inside the heads of his characters, both male and female, and presents either side of the gender divide with aplomb.

There’s something about the cool, limpid prose that keeps sentimentality at bay. But despite its emotional detachment, this is one of the most affecting love stories I’ve ever read.

It’s also one of the most thought-provoking. That’s largely due to the device of Ken — whose intelligent, writerly voice, only interrupts the main narrative on an occasional basis. But his presence begs the question: is he authorised to tell this tale? Or does John and Sabiha’s love story remain their’s alone to keep?

Andrew Rule, Australia, Author, Blake Publishing, Book review, John Silvester, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Leadbelly’ by Andrew Rule and John Silvester


Non-fiction – paperback; Blake Publishing; 288 pages; 2005.

Between 1995 and 2004 there were 34 underworld killings in Melbourne, Australia. Yes, 34. I don’t think there were that many deaths in six-and-a-half series of The Sopranos and that has to be one of the most violent TV shows ever broadcast.

According to the authors “the size of the death toll varies from source to source because opinions vary about when the ‘war’ began and who are casualties and who are not”. Even the concept of ‘war’ is disputed, because not all the murders are related, some are simply one-off hits to settle old scores. But police did establish that the bulk of the killings were part of a deadly feud between two rival gangs: the New Boys and the Carlton Crew.

Having followed this string of brutal and bloody murders from afar (I left Australia in mid-1998) via Melbourne’s The Age website, I was anxious to read this book to piece all the crimes together in my head as one long narrative. Unfortunately, the book’s structure doesn’t work like that. Instead, what you get is 29 self-contained chapters that look at each crime in isolation. I imagine they were written like this for newspaper publication, but even so, I found it annoyingly repetitive in places — explaining who characters are and how they are linked to each other and what terrible crimes they have committed — which wears very thin very quickly.

And the prose style is terribly tabloid, surprising given that it’s written by two journalists for whom I have the utmost respect (Andrew Rule’s Strict Rules, a non-fiction account of his time touring the outback and staying with aboriginal communities, is extraordinarily good and worth tracking down if you get a chance, while Silvester’s day-to-day reporting for The Age on the crimes covered in Leadbelly has been thorough, tenacious and imminently readable over the course of this ongoing gangland feud). Still, I wonder how much of this “dumbed down” style is simply a reflection of the market to which this book is aimed. It’s not so much sloppily written, but it’s riddled with unwarranted editorialising that I found patronising.

But if the objective of Leadbelly is to take the “glamour” out of the underworld and to expose these criminals for the violent sociopaths that they are, then perhaps the authors have achieved their aim. Here’s what they say about the underworld,

 …that loose collection of individuals who live outside the law and associate with fellow criminals both in and out of prison. Myths have been built up about this antisocial sub-class, mainly because there is a perceived glamour about being on the wrong side of the law. Some people think gangsters are masterminds with the brains and the nerve to beat the system, ‘anti-heroes’ and ‘rebels’ who snub conformity to ‘live their own lives’.
The truth is most are too stupid, too lazy and too immoral to make a mark in the mainstream community. They don’t decide to opt out of orthodox, law-abiding society so much as drift into crime because it seems easy and smart compared with working for a living. Others, of course, are born into ciminal families, condemned by breeding and circumstances to a lifetime cycle of crime and punishment.
Many criminals are ‘stupid’ by conventional standards — in reading, writing and comprehension, for instance — but some survive and prosper, at least until the law or even more predatory criminals catch up with them. Some develop a rat cunning, which trumps ‘normal’ intelligence in their bleak and brutal world. They can’t read, yet can spy a police surveillance car a kilometre away. Others can barely count, yet can organise a bank robbery with split-second, military precision.

Rule and Silvester don’t pull their punches — they make it exceedingly clear throughout the 288 pages that make up this book that they do not have any sympathy whatsoever for the criminals. But by the same token they don’t necessarily hold the Victoria Police in great esteem either, a much-maligned force that has been accused, at one time or another, of being reactionary, trigger-happy* and corrupt.

When two young police constables were ambushed and fatally shot one early morning in 1988 — ten years before the ‘war’ began, mind you — as payback for the police shooting of a well-known armed robber 13 hours earlier, Rule and Silvester claim that some police “were so desperate to ‘get a result’ they wanted to use illegal tactics to get evidence before a court”. They add:

A huge investigation began within hours. Emotions ran high. Some police virtually declared war on the underworld. They wanted to mount raid after raid on known criminals and their relatives and associates. Many in the force saw this reaction as justified. Others saw it as blind rage, which would do nothing to gain evidence admitted in court.

This, essentially, is just the tip of the iceberg. The police’s handling of certain investigations, their surveillance methods and their sting operations come in for some serious questioning — and not just by the authors, there have been several public inquiries into specific incidents over the years which has resulted in changes to police working practices.

If you can forgive the slightly patronising Cops Vs Robbers tone of the book, what emerges is a fascinating account of Melbourne’s dark underbelly and the ongoing rivalry that exists between a police force under siege and the street savvy crims who think they can do what they like, when they like.

I am reliably informed that the 13-part drama series Underbelly, which is based on these true-life crimes and comes out on DVD in the UK next February, is better value than the book. I will keep you posted once I have watched it!

* In the ten years after 1986, police killed 30 people in Victoria, whilst NSW police killed 10 in the same period. I remember it well, because it seemed like every time you turned on the TV news there’d be another report of a citizen gunned down. But this book explains the roots of that trigger-happy situation. Apparently, in 1985, two police pulled over a panel van on the Hume Highway just north of Melbourne. They knew it was being driven by a known criminal who was likely to be armed and dangerous — in fact, they were tailing him at the time — but what they didn’t expect when they approached the car was the speed with which ‘Mad Max’ pulled out his pistol and fired off several shots. Rule and Silvester believe this random attack wormed its way into the collective psyche of the force, describing it as “the first milestone on a grim journey into hostile territory where almost every police officer felt threatened by unknown assailants who could be lurking in any car, any doorway, any hotel”.

Australia, Author, Book review, Mark Seymour, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors’ by Mark Seymour


Non-fiction – paperback; Viking; 391 pages; 2008.

If you are an Australian of a certain age and are a fan of pub rock, then chances are you have seen Hunters and Collectors perform live. And if you have seen them perform live then you no doubt know that this band is one of the most visceral live acts — second only to Midnight Oil — to ever come out of the Southern Hemisphere.

This book, written by lead singer Mark Seymour (who also happens to be the older brother of Crowded House’s bass player Nick Seymour), provides an inside look at what it was like fronting this powerhouse of a band for 18 years.

Of course, if you haven’t already guessed by now, I am a longtime Hunters and Collectors fan. But funnily enough, I always preferred seeing them live than listening to their records, which never seemed to convey the sheer velocity and passion of the music when performed in concert. In fact, this view of the band is not a unique one: they were critically acclaimed but never quite achieved the commercial success that comes so easily to other bands that do far less hard graft.

The book, which is currently only available in Australia (my sister gave me this copy when she visited me in London a couple of months ago), does help explain why the band was big in Australia but failed to crack the UK or American markets. Set up as an artistic collective, in which every member of the eight-piece band shared songwriting copyright and royalties, the decision-making process did not allow anyone to take the lead, nor did it allow the goal of commercial superstardom to become the over-riding aim. Seymour makes no bones about how frustrating this became, especially when, as lead singer, he was seen as the “face” of the band and its key lyricist.

At times the story reads a bit like a kid who has thrown the toys out of the pram. Seymour clearly thinks the band and, more importantly, himself deserved better. But he is also incredibly candid and so hard on himself that you kind of feel sorry for him.

I particularly liked his account of the band’s early days in London, where they were on the cusp of international success, only to blow it all when one member who’d had too much to drink insulted the record company. This incident — in a curry house in Shepherd’s Bush — would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t for the painful financial repercussions that followed. You get the sense that Hunters and Collectors never quite recovered from this monumental error.

All in all, Thirteen Tonne Theory (the name comes from the weight of equipment the band took on the road when they toured up and down the country) is an intriguing read. Written by a singer that crafted so many Australian anthems — Talking to a Stranger, Say Goodbye, Throw Your Arms Around Me and The Holy Grail — it’s a wonderful, if slightly worthy, warts-and-all account that fans will find fascinating.

Australia, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, historical fiction, Kate Grenville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 349 pages; 2006.

You generally know that a book has had an impact when you dream about it — or when you wake and it’s the first thing on your mind. This is what happened to me with the Booker short-listed and much acclaimed The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

I had not expected to like this book. This is because I think there are too many Australian novels about the country’s convict past and one more wasn’t really going to add anything to the sum of human knowledge. But I was wrong about this one.

On the face of it The Secret River is a good old-fashioned tale about a poor Thames waterman who, having been found guilty of stealing some precious timber, is sent to the other side of the world — New South Wales — for the term of his natural life. Here, accompanied by his wife and children, he is eventually pardoned and then tries to make a new life for himself as a waterman on the Hawkesbury River. He secures a 100-acre plot in the forest, where he builds a hut and plants a cornfield, and contends with the native population and their intimidating ways…

But delve a little deeper and this novel explores all kinds of moralistic issues: what constitutes crime and how should criminals be punished?; at what point should a man fight for what he believes in?; when does land ownership become a right and not a privilege?; do you have a right to defend your property by force?; and how should one handle cultures in collision?

More importantly it also uncovers Australia’s secret past in which the country’s Aboriginals were slaughtered or forced out of their territory because they were perceived as a threat that had to be eradicated, something which still resonates today.

Grenville handles this issue with intelligence and wisdom. Not only does she put a human face on this dark past, she makes you wonder what would you do if you were put in the same situation, living in a strange land where all the rules have been thrown out the window and the only way you can convince your wife that this slice of paradise is worth holding onto is to make her world safe by any means possible.

The dilemma faced by the main character, William Thornhill, is all to real — even if, tempered by hindsight and 200 years of supposed civilisation, you may not agree with his decisions or actions.

I found this book imminently readable, with its straightforward narrative and well-paced plot broken up into easily digestible sections. Some of the characters are slightly stereotyped — the strong, dependable feisty wife; the nutty loner hellbent on killing Blacks — but for the most part it’s an entertaining read that conveys the origins of modern Australia and the evils of colonialism with understated empathy.

Whether it is Booker Prize-winning material remains to be seen.

Australia, Author, Book review, James Woodford, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text, travel

‘The Dog Fence’ by James Woodford


Non-fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 260 pages; 2003.

This is a delightful personal account of one journalist’s quest to travel the full length of the Dog Fence, a man-made structure that runs 5,400km across three states in the Australian outback, which is designed to keep dingos away from livestock.

Much of the fence traverses inhospitable land — gibber plains, rocky outcrops, desert, sand and salt plains — on private property, so it is a journey that very few people have experienced. Not even the patrol men, who repair the fence, have followed it for its full continent-dividing length.

In this book Woodford takes us on an epic, awe-inspiring journey to another, sometimes dangerous, world. Negotiating the hazards of travel in remote country (punctures, wire wrapped around drive shafts and rogue animals, to name but a few), he meets the men (and women) who live in some of the loneliest and harshest environments on the planet.


You get the sense that Woodford, a city boy from Sydney, is out of his depth at times, not sure how to handle the people hardened to a life far different from his own, nor the challenges that such a rugged landscape throws at him. But he has a certain knack for self-deprecating humour, which endears him to the reader. You know that he knows he’s actually a bit of a softie and he’ll only be too pleased to return to the comforts of his Sydney home when his adventure is over.

That said, he paints a beautiful portrait of the outback. His unbounded joy at seeing wild birds and animals in their natural habitat resonates strongly (no surprise really, given he’s written a book on The Secret Life of Wombats, reviewed on Reading Matters a couple of years ago) and his admiration for the people who work the fence is obvious too.

The book is littered with photographs and maps, which aid comprehension. All in all, it’s a delightful travel tale worth getting your hands on if you wish to know more about present-day life in the Australian outback.

Australia, Author, Book review, Bruce Chatwin, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Vintage

‘Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin


Non fiction – paperback; Vintage; 293 pages; 2005 edition.

In the late 1980s, travel writer Bruce Chatwin visited the Australian outback to find out more about the songlines, the invisible pathways across the continent which connect communities and follow ancient boundaries. During his journey, he is accompanied by a Russian-born Australian, Arkady Volchok, who is mapping the sacred sites of the aborigines. Volchok proves to be a wonderful and knowledgeable host, showing Chatwin the rugged beauty of the landscape and introducing him to its many native human inhabitants.

Chatwin’s writing is deceptively simple but very engaging; he captures feelings and characters so aptly that it’s almost like you’re on the journey with him. I thoroughly enjoyed his adventure to Alice Springs and the far north, especially his encounters with Jim Hanlon, a 73-year-old loner who wanted Chatwin to stay in a caravan “smelling of something dead” to finish his book, and Donkey Donk, an aboriginal who takes him hunting in a Ford Sedan which degenerates into a bit of a sad, hit-and-miss affair.

My only quibble is that the book begins to wane about two-thirds of the way in and never quite picks up the pace again. Chatwin fills much of the last few chapters with jottings from old notebooks in an attempt to explore his idea that travelling is a natural instinct in humankind that has been tamed by the trappings of materialistic life. I appreciated the point, but felt it had been laboured much too strongly.

Despite this, The Songlines is a highly readable and interesting travel tale, well worth reading, especially if you are interested in nomadic lifestyles, aboriginal culture and the Australian outback.

Australia, Author, Book review, James Woodford, nature, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Secret Life of Wombats’ by James Woodford


Non-fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 229 pages; 2001.

Quite simply James Woodford’s The Secret Life of Wombats is an amazing book full of amazing facts.

Amazing fact # 1: Northern hairy-nosed wombats produce square-shaped poo, which even the world’s greatest scientists can’t explain.

Amazing fact #2: Wombats have rootless teeth that grow throughout their lives so it doesn’t matter if they break them chewing through tough tree roots.

Amazing fact #3: Southern hairy-nosed wombats have a phenomenally low need for water, surviving on as little as 22ml per day.

Aside from these amazing facts, Woodford’s book is incredibly easy to read and there’s not a boring sentence in it. Each page drips with enthusiasm and love for these intriguing creatures. If you like wombats, you will LOVE this book. If only all zoology books were so beautifully written.

Australia, Author, Bill Bryson, Black Swan, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Down Under’ by Bill Bryson


Nonfiction – paperback; Black Swan; 398 pages; 2001.

Bill Bryson’s Down Under is a hilarious romp across the world’s “driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents”.

As an Australian I had expected to take offence at this travelogue given the caning Bryson received from British reviewers when the hardcover came out, but I was pleasantly surprised, finding myself nodding in agreement one minute, laughing uproariously the next. I particularly liked his chapter on Canberra because it cut so close to the bone:

When a man as outstandingly colourless as John Howard turns his nose up at a place you know it must be worth a look. I couldn’t wait to see it.

My only gripe is that Bryson tended, on occasion, to gloss over certain locations (the Great Ocean Road barely gets a mention, and there’s no explanation as to how he got from there to the Mornington Peninsula on the other side of Port Phillip Bay), but he more than makes up for it with his funny observations and biting sarcasm. This is a thoroughly enjoyable read.