26 December 2011

Down Under by Bill Bryson

Originally published in July 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

This is the account of Bill Bryson’s (broken up) journey around Australia, to visit its biggest cities and some interesting sights, natural and man-made.

Bryson is obviously an australophile. This book is a virtual love letter to Australia, especially its natural beauty, and in a lesser way to its people. Even though he writes in his usual humorously mocking style, and criticises certain things, especially environmental policies and the less than helpful staff at hotels in a certain city, the book is for the most part a very positive and affectionate, sometimes glowing, account of this interesting country. Besides covering his impressions and travel experiences, Bryson gives some account of Australian history and the country’s attractions, and the book can, in fact, be used as an informal guide to some of the places he visited. He seems to have been very diligent in hunting down and exploring unusual little museums and sights, some of which may not even be mentioned in guide books.

I have previously read four of Bryson’s other books: Made in America and Mother Tongue, both of which are about the history of the English language, and two travel books, Notes From a Small Island and The Lost Continent. I liked the language books - they were funny and good reads, even if some of the etymology was a bit suspect, but I didn’t particularly like the travel books. I found them to be so overloaded with Bryson’s signature self-deprecating humour that it went over the top and started sounding like whining. I would also have liked to read less about him and more about the country he was supposed to be writing about. There was also something, some spirit or spark that was missing from The Lost Continent (not to mention the hostile, almost sarcastic, undertone) and I had to force myself to finish it.

The American title
Here, finally, is a travel book from Bryson that deserves all the praise that has been heaped on him as a funny travel writer. He writes about the country and people and has toned down the self-deprecation to an acceptable level so that it is actually funny instead of “here-he-goes-again” tedious, but it is rather sad that he should feel the need to make some rather mean-spirited comments about people who are supposed to be his friends. Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes couldn’t help laughing, but I still think they are mean. Of course, I don’t know what the people in question are like - maybe they are mean right back at him, but it doesn’t feel very friendly to me. But these are minor faults in an otherwise good book.

Rating: A great and sometimes funny introduction to Australia, its people, cities and sights. 4 stars.

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