by Bill Bryson
Category: Travel & Holiday / Travel Writing
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publication date: 5 May 2001
Number of pages: 432
Prizes: Winner of WH Smith Book Awards: Travel 2001.
Winner of WH Smith Book Awards (Travel Writing) 2001.
It was as if I had privately discovered life on another planet, or a parallel universe where life was at once recognizably similar but entirely different. I can't tell you how exciting it was. Insofar as I had accumulated my expectations of Australia at all in the intervening years, I had thought of it as a kind of alternative southern California, a place of constant sunshine and the cheerful vapidity of a beach lifestyle, but with a slightly British bent - a sort of Baywatch with cricket...' Of course, what greeted Bill Bryson was something rather different. Australia is a country that exists on a vast scale. It is the world's sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. It is the driest, flattest, hottest, most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents and still it teems with life - a large proportion of it quite deadly. In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in a very nasty way than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistable currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. Ignoring such dangers - yet curiously obsessed by them - Bill Bryson journeyed to Australia and promptly fell in love with the country. And who can blame him? The people are cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging; their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water; the food is excellent; the beer is cold and the sun nearly always shines. Life doesn't get much better than this.
So the question is: will Bill Bryson be able to deliver yet another travel book that educates, entertains and makes the delighted reader laugh aloud? No worries, mate, because 'Bryson visits Australia' (or Down Under, to use its proper title) doesn't disappoint. Our boy Bill declares his love for the Antipodes and proves it beyond doubt. This is another well-researched serio-comic treat, featuring Bryson's classic creation - a bemused American tourist who masks his generosity of spirit and genuine wonder behind a wisecracking persona (the character known as 'Bill Bryson'). Bryson's delight in language and wordplay is perhaps his greatest gift. My favourites from Down Underinclude his collection of Australian Parliamentary epithets ('you perfumed gigolo/mangy maggot/stunned mullet') and his encounter with a complete stranger in the shadow of a giant fibreglass lobster somewhere south of Melbourne (the punch-line to which is 'man crushed by falling bullock's bollocks'). Another winner is the vicious parody of Ozzie radio cricket commentary ('I don't think I've seen offside medium slow fast pace bowling to match it since Baden-Powell took Rangachangabanga for a maiden ovary at Bangalore in 1948'). He's also acute on politics. The plight of the Aborigines in the land that they settled 45,000 years ago lingers in the mind. He remains tough on American junk culture, too: 'We Yanks have created a philosophy of retailing that is totally without aesthetics and totally irresistible.' Bryson's tales of overindulgence in the local brew - familiar from previous books - are still surreally funny but have become a little disturbing. Whether he knows it or not (and I expect he does), he is slowly revealing intriguing aspects of his complicated personality to his many readers. There's an underlying world-weariness here, even an existential angst. EXCELLENT. I continue to find Bryson fascinating company, warts and all. Review by KERRY SHALE (Kirkus UK)
What the papers say:
"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 New York Times Book Review "Bryson is the perfect travelling companion... when it comes to travel's peculiars the man still has no peers" The Times "Bill Bryson is a very talented writer and an enormously funny and perceptive one. He is an artist who needs a big canvas. Australia has provided this. He's painted a masterpiece in travel literature" Globe & Mail Toronto "He arrives at his destination, finds a hotel, checks in, meanders around the neighbourhood, visits any museums or public monuments he happens to encounter, has a couple of drinks, eavesdrops on a conversation or two, then goes to bed. A year later, people on three continents are hospitalised as a result of ruptures caused by laughing so hard at his account of the experience" The Age, Melbourne
Bill Bryson is much loved for his bestselling travel books, from The Lost Continent to Down Under, but Notes from a Small Island has earned a particularly special place in the nation's heart (a national poll for World Book Day in 2003 voted it the book that best represents Britain). His acclaimed A Short History of Nearly Everything won the Aventis Prize for Science Books and the Descartes Science Communication Prize. He has now returned to live in the UK with his wife and family. www.billbryson.co.uk
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