When I travel I tend to read books with a more international flavour – it’s hard to immerse yourself in a thriller set in rainswept Berlin when you’re in 35 degrees of steam-heat.
This trip I read ‘Congo Journey’ by Redmond O’Hanlon, who is the Gerald Durrell of the maggots-and-malaria school of travel. This, his third outing, was marvellous in its description of wildlife (notably birds) and sinister portents but lacked any political background or overview, making it rather a one-note tale of travellers (one annoyingly English, one annoyingly American) blundering through the red tape and gruesome illnesses of the Congo in search of pygmies and a mythical lake monster. It ruins no endings to tell you they don’t find the latter.
I had delayed reading Mischa Berlinski’s ‘Fieldwork’ by two years. Every time I picked it up I was put off by the cover, which makes it look like a girlie romance set in foreign climes. In fact, the subject matter seems just as off-putting; Christian missionaries and anthropologists in Burma and Thailand. However, it’s structured like a thriller, and is all the more brilliant for being a debut novel. The hero goes searching for the reason why a young female anthropologist would have shot a missionary dead, and finds himself enmeshed in the lives of a gospel-preaching family of equally heartwarming and horrific proportions. This is a terrifically involving read, especially when dealing with unlikeable characters. My only cavil is the problem I have with many avowedly serious US novels; a surfeit of extraneous detail.
Don’t bother with ‘An Idiot Abroad’, Karl Pilkington’s cretinous view of seven world wonders which WH Smith is touting all over its Gruffalo-and-Mars-Bar-filled shelves; serves me right for picking it up.