The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Set out on a thrilling literary journey
From the Black Sea to Madagascar, blaze a trail through the best travel books of the year this Christmas, says Michael Kerr
When you travel across pages, not even a new variant of Covid can hinder your movement. In the past year, I’ve wandered over the Pennines and deep into Wales. I’ve climbed to mist-shrouded Scottish summits, dived in Caribbean seas. I’ve splashed along the muddy roads of Madagascar, followed a river between Russia and China, and circled the Black Sea. Here are the books that took me away…
THE LONG FIELD by Pamela Petro (Little Toller, £20)
Why, a reviewer once asked, is the American Pamela Petro so obsessed with Wales? Petro’s answer is both a memoir and an exploration of hiraeth – a Welsh word for longing for all you can’t have. In it, she weaves together the essential hiraeth stories of Wales with aspects of her own life: as a gay woman, as the survivor of a train crash, as the daughter of a parent with dementia. It’s an absorbing meditation on the meaning of home.
THE AMUR RIVER by Colin Thubron (Chatto & Windus, £20)
At 79, having been writing about Russia and China for 40 years, Colin Thubron sets off along the 3,000mile river where they supposedly interconnect. Before he’s 15 pages in, he’s had two falls (X-rays months later show two fractured ribs and a broken ankle). On the ground, even cops treat him more gently than he expects, and his guides wonder whether he’s still up to it; on the page, readers need have no such doubts. The writer mightn’t be as sprightly as he was, but the writing is as lyrical as ever.
THE TRAVEL WRITING TRIBE: JOURNEYS IN SEARCH OF A GENRE by Tim Hannigan (C Hurst, £20)
Travel writers, as well as travel readers, will find pleasure and profit in this. Hannigan journeys both deep into the archives and on to the home ground of some of the most illustrious members of the note-taking tribe. What drives these people, he asks, and how accurately and honestly do they show us the world? It’s a deft piece of genre-hopping, combining interviews – with writers including Dervla Murphy and Kapka Kassabova, Colin Thubron and Samanth Subramanian – with memoir, criticism… and travel writing.
TROUBLED WATER: A JOURNEY AROUND THE BLACK SEA by Jens Mühling (Haus, £16.99)
One of Mühling’s ancestors, an admiral, fought for Catherine the Great, who in 1783 ordered Russia’s first annexation of Crimea. Mühling himself reported on the second, ordered by Vladimir Putin, in 2014. Here he explores nations ancient and nascent, meets everyone from marine scientists to cigarette smugglers, and digs into a history of neighbourly conflict. It’s a brisk and brilliant tour, a reminder that ethnically mixed communities shaped these shores for thousands of years, until they were torn apart by imperialists and nationalists.
THE GARDENS OF MARS
by John Gimlette
Madagascar as documented by Gimlette is weirder and more wonderful than the version animated by DreamWorks. It’s off Africa, but its burnt-red west was first settled by Asians, only 10,000 years ago. It’s a place where, today, you can access 4G technology and eat a chameleon that was killed with a spear. Gimlette’s “walk-through history” is a tour de force, taking in slavery, Welsh missionaries, ancestor worship, French conquest, and forts whose ramparts are rendered in millions of egg whites.
ISLANDS OF ABANDONMENT: LIFE IN THE POST-HUMAN LANDSCAPE
by Cal Flyn (William Collins, £16.99) Grey partridges wandered car parks near Cambridge; a cuckoo was seen in Osterley, west London, for the first time in 20 years: wildlife took advantage when humans were locked down. Flyn chronicles that phenomenon on a larger scale. Her compelling book, shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize and in Scotland’s National Book Awards, is about 12 abandoned places around the world – ghost towns and exclusion zones, no man’s lands and post-industrial hinterlands – “and what happens when nature is allowed to reclaim its place”.
I BELONG HERE: A JOURNEY ALONG THE BACKBONE OF BRITAIN by Anita Sethi (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
Anita Sethi, born and bred in Manchester, was taking a train from Liverpool to Newcastle when she became the victim of a race-hate crime. Afterwards, despite panic attacks, she determined that she would continue travelling on her own and assert her right to exist. In I Belong Here she explores the Pennines, “the backbone” of England. It’s a journey in the head as well as on the ground, one that grows in power as she pushes on, demonstrating that she has backbone aplenty of her own.
OSEBOL: VOICES FROM A SWEDISH VILLAGE
by Marit Kapla
(Allen Lane, £20)
It’s not billed as “travel”, but it’s definitely transporting: 800 pages, laid out like a prose poem, on a village many Swedes would recently have struggled to find on a map. It is particular in its focus on one place – in the forests of northern Varmland, where logging’s been automated, school rolls and elk are declining, and wolves increasing – and universal in its reminders that nothing stays the same. Kapla, who grew up in Osebol, interviewed most of its 40 remaining adults, ranging in age from 18 to 92 and in occupation from carpenter to carer. You feel as though you’re in among them.