Book review: A moving journey of discovery on the road much travelled
One Woman, One Rucksack, One Lifetime of Travel
Reading this outstanding travel memoir brought Paul Theroux's observation to mind: "Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going." Rosita Boland, the author of Elsewhere, belongs in the latter category. While she may have the destination decided, one of the many beauties of this beguiling book, is that really Rosita doesn't know where she's going. But go she will, a woman solo, save for her ancient rucksack, a notebook and a passionate curiosity to find the world and more besides.
Nine wondrously wrought essays navigate the globe and the author's life, each taking as its subject a locale, a time and an arcane word. And so the Clare graduate with an acute case of eleutheromania i.e. an intense desire for freedom, finds herself, in the late 1980s, Down Under in deepest Daintree. The reader will journey far and wide in the company of this thoughtful wordsmith, living her dreams and dashed hopes, learning about her childhood and her work, before finding ourselves with her contemporary self (volitant now - able to fly) as she swims in Ubud, coming to terms with a shattering realisation.
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An award-winning journalist, Boland knows how to tell a story, while the poet in her marries the metaphor to the adventure. Two heart-stopping episodes - a mesmerising account of being stranded on an Antarctic ice floe and a perilous bus journey on the Indus Highway - stimulate musings on mortality and isolation. The dash to Pakistan, prompted by a dazzling but complicated romance, is prefaced with the word brame (meaning fierce longing or passion); a couple of terrifying brushes with death later and her mind is focused solely on survival.
She shows such courage. Apart from travelling (a lone flame-haired female) to remote places, physical dangers abound: our occasionally reckless heroine avoids a trio of rabid dogs in Kathmandu by leaping on to a wall, a glass lampshade explodes in her face in Sri Lanka, while a green tree pit viper truncates a visit to the temples of Angkor Wat. As for walking on an active volcano in Iceland...
In addition to the inevitably riveting anecdotes and the personal insights such inveterate wanderlust is bound to inspire, Boland wields a lyric pen: "The rain fell like a collapsing orchestra, playing different sounds on the leaves, the tin roofs…" The sensuous musicality with which she captures the beauty of the natural world has a luminous quality akin to the legendary Jan Morris.
Boland travels lightly - no iPhones or digital cameras -yet armed with an intelligent, inquisitive mind, an observant eye and a touching sensibility, she brings great depth to the journals of her journeys. Her mordant humour is another delightful bonus.
On her romantic relationships, Rosita is reasonably candid, though her reticence will frustrate some readers. The American essayist Pico Iyer wrote that ''we travel , initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves''. And it is in the finding and understanding the countries of the mind that we must all navigate, that tricky terrain of the psyche, that this fine book is at its very best. The eloquence, candour and dignity she brings to the story of her heart-broken surrender to never having children, while swimming the azure laps of an infinity pool in Bali will remain with me for a long time.
In non-fiction, this is , without doubt, my book of the year. Exquisite, courageous, captivating. Bravo, Boland.