Thursday, 7 June 2012

On Mosquitoes & Soul-Searching: Review of Catherine Ryan Howard's BACKPACKED - A RELUCTANT TRIP ACROSS CENTRAL AMERICA

I’ve been struggling to decide on an angle to take for this review, because every time I think about the book I’m distracted by fond memories of how good it is. Backpacked, by Catherine Ryan Howard, is the story of a reluctant traveller’s journey across Central America, and from the very first page I could tell it was a journey I needed to take too. The first line had me laughing, the rest of the prelude had me gagging to know how things came to such dire circumstances in the first place, and the remainder of the book certainly didn’t disappoint.

Although it detailed a true story I still (as always) want to look at it from a writer’s perspective. So with that in mind, why was it so good? Well first and foremost, the voice of the book sold it for me. It’s confident, funny, and brilliantly shows not just the author’s personality but the culture she comes from and the alien world she finds herself stuck in. At very rare moments I thought the editing could be tightened up a little – perhaps a sentence could be re-written in the active voice or a minor bit of repetition could be fixed up – but most of the time I was too enthralled to notice.

Another wonderful part of the book, largely thanks to that excellent voice, are the ‘characters’. The author and the best friend she travels with make a hilarious odd couple that emanate enough girl-power to have walked straight out of the pages of some chick lit novel, and you can’t help but wanting to hang out with them. Then there are the strangers they meet along the way. Whether it’s the crazy, the kind, the scary or the more-annoying-than-a-million-Honduran-mosquitos, they’re all painted so vividly I could have met them myself (although for some I’m glad I didn’t).

The same can be said of the settings visited throughout their adventure. The memories I have of this book feel like my own, as if I were the one doing the travelling. The attention to detail in the descriptions is excellent, and as you step off the bus into each new place you can see it, smell it, hear it and feel it too. And with just the right mix of drama, humour and a wee bit of soul-searching, the entire trip was a joy to experience.


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