AWOL: TALES FOR TRAVEL-INSPIRED MINDS edited by Jennifer Barclay and Amy Logan (Vintage Canada), 270 pages, $27 paper. Rating: NNNN
going absent without leave, or AWOL, makes for some pretty amazing epiphanies.That's the impetus behind this nicely designed volume of travel tales by Canadian writers, compiled by lit-savvy Jennifer Barclay and Amy Logan, the former an ex-literary agent, the latter a publicist and writer.
Uprooted from the familiar day-to-day details of home and native land, folks like Andrew Pyper, Katherine Govier and Michael Winter spin brief and often brilliant chronicles of their journeys everywhere from the Ontario wilderness to Brazilian rain forests.
The book is a joy to read on several levels. For one, we're dealing with scribes who know their prose. Absent are the dry, factual travel accounts typical of, say, a Let's Go! or Fodor's guide.
Instead, explorations of rural markets, tourist traps and hole-in-the-wall hotels explode off the page. You smell the stench of rotting bodies wading with journalist Jill Lawless through the rubble after an Indian earthquake; you salivate over Laurie Gough's descriptions of Thai shrimp with chilies, tiny perfect picture postcards transformed into text.
The writers' perspectives are as diverse and exotic as the locales they visit. These aren't freelancers assigned to fend for themselves at the behest of big-budget travel bureaus. They're flawed individuals - anthropologists, mothers, hippies - possibly on pilgrimages to their own personal meccas.
Some of the stories are achingly intense, like Camilla Gibb's exquisitely penned, bittersweet memoir of her mental illness and complicated love affair in, and with, Ethiopia.
Granted, group travel can be tough if your philosophy isn't simpatico with that of your companions, and that's where AWOL sometimes veers off course. Given such specific searches for self, personality clashes and divergent agendas are inevitable. I yawned at Myrna Kostash's dry report of her Greek quest for some obscure saint and skimmed Mark Anthony Jarman's vaguely misogynist neo-Hemingway travels through western Europe.
And I gagged at a few variations on the patronizing "those poor native fools" theme.
By nature, anthologies are hit-and-miss, but this is a remarkably strong collection. It combines thoughtful self-revelation with poignant portraits of elsewhere. A fascinating first step in bursting anyone's smugly insular bubble.
Nikki Barrett, Arjun Basu, Deirdre Kelly and others read from AWOL Wednesday (May 21) at Harbourfront Centre.
Write Books at email@example.com