Tuesday 25 June 2019

Elsewhere by Rosita Boland: ‘Beautifully authentic writing, full of humanity and gumption’

Non-fiction: Elsewhere

Rosita Boland

Doubleday, paperback, 267 pages, €17.95

Scary ride: The Indus Highway in Pakistan is the background for one of Rosita’s stories
Scary ride: The Indus Highway in Pakistan is the background for one of Rosita’s stories

Joanne Hayden

The German word Fernweh, a longing for far-off places, makes absolute sense to Rosita Boland. Throughout her adult life, the journalist has felt and acted upon that longing, travelling to remote parts of the world, usually alone.

In Elsewhere, she documents nine of her journeys, taking places such as Pakistan, Antarctica and Peru as catalysts for vivid and wide-ranging essays that draw on her work, loves, losses and friendships as well as her wanderlust.

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Boland's hugely significant interview with Ann Lovett's boyfriend, Ricky McDonnell, won her the 2018 award for Journalist of the Year, and the curiosity, conscientiousness and engagement with language that she brings to her journalism are evident throughout Elsewhere.

Each essay begins with a year, a place and an uncommon word: eleutheromania - an intense desire for freedom; kintsukuroi - to repair with gold. A lapsed poet, Boland uses metaphor and imagery judiciously but also understands the importance of narrative.

Her writing is lucid and alive. She pays close attention to internal as well as external landscapes so that her experiences have immediacy and emotional truth - so much immediacy that they can induce strong visceral reactions.

Her description of a 1995 bus trip along a section of the Indus Highway in Pakistan - screeching around hairpin bends on an unsurfaced track with no protective barriers, hundreds of metres above the river - gave me vertigo, complete with nausea and jelly legs.

"Slowly," she writes, "the road began to take on the sensation of fiction... the bus appeared to be levitating in thin air, so narrow was the road, and so close were the wheels to its bare edge."

In the same essay, she recalls trying to buy stamps to Ireland. "Madame," a clerk says, having looked through his handbook for rates, "I cannot find this country." This line inadvertently captures the freedom and relief, the sense of perspective - as well as alienation - that travelling can bring, ambivalences that Boland is excellent at exploring.

Her snapshots evoke characters who are nuanced and various and who sometimes see her as thoroughly unhinged, particularly if she meets them on the road. But the characters are just as likely to be from home. Caroline Walsh - the late literary editor of the Irish Times - is lovingly memorialised, as is a favourite aunt.

One bus trip on the Indus Highway is enough for Boland and, stuck in a tiny village where no women appear in public, she waits for a plane that is repeatedly delayed.

Like other pieces in the collection, the Pakistan essay is partly about complicated love and the structural choices intensify the power of the writing; introducing the relationship close to the beginning brings her entrapment and isolation in the village into even sharper relief.

The book's love affairs are stories in themselves and sometimes these stories seem incomplete. The relationships ended, that much is clear, but the lightness of detail about what happened can feel disappointing.

Boland leaves certain questions unanswered. But it's entirely conscious - she reveals as much as she wants to - and a sign that she understands how to spark her reader's curiosity.

Her keen eye, humour and intrepidness are reminiscent of travel writers like Dervla Murphy and Mary Russell.

She does not paint herself as a hero but rather exposes grumpy, disaffected, and occasionally rash parts of herself - risking her safety by trekking in Pakistan against local advice or walking on an active lava field in Guatemala.

Amazingly, she says she has never felt homesick, and nor is she afraid of travelling alone. What she is afraid of is the "involuntary stasis," that "never going anywhere" would bring.

But her vulnerability comes through as strongly as her resilience.

In Bali, she stays in a guesthouse with an infinity pool and swims for hours every day, trying to come to terms with the fact that she will never be a mother.

She writes devastatingly about miscarriage and having to abandon her hope of adoption, calling out prejudices towards women who don't have children.

It's beautifully authentic writing, full of humanity and gumption, and, just like the collection as a whole, an object lesson in the difference between being a tourist and being a traveller, the difference between settling for safety and truly living your life.

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