Though some time after initial publication, my reviews of Daniel Mason’s A Far Country and the U.S. release of Alexander Frater’s Tales from the Torrid Zone: Travels in the Deep Tropics have appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Honolulu Advertiser and Pacific Magazine, respectively.
Both explore life in the tropics but through different means. In Mason’s novel he brings us into a mesmerising fictional setting, while Frater’s is a travelogue with dashes of memoir framed by studied musings on changing cultures.
I enjoyed both books, though Frater’s has my special vote. Now that they are no longer online, I’ve included them below, or you can click on the link to Frater’s review in Pacific Magazine.
A Far Country
By Daniel Mason
KNOPF; 271 pages; $24
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Many writers and teachers assert that a successful novel must be set firmly in a place, and by this they usually mean a named, recognizable point on the map. Though the country and time of Daniel Mason’s new novel, “A Far Country,” is intangible, the surreal setting of Saint Michael of the Cane, where fourteen-year-old protagonist Isabel is raised, is through Mason’s meticulous description also readily made visible.
It is a backland semi-tropical place inhabited by manioc, geckos, dengue fever and seasonal sugarcane workers. Its whitewashed buildings frame a plaza with one phone for all residents and “an empty fountain built during optimistic times.” Mason is skilled in such illustrative but spare statements, making it all the more incommodious that throughout the book’s shadowy plot it’s difficult to grasp hold of any detail for long.
The story’s most consistent facet is hunger. Regular drought, exquisitely described through Isabel’s imaginings as “A shuddering descent, like falling from the sky,” creates frequent migration in search of food and work. The unnamed southern city is naively seen as an utopist escape from lives subject to whims of weather, offering erasure of a what is viewed as a “world separated into categories of things that could and could not be eaten.”
Though the focus is largely on the dichotomy between backlands and modern cities, and the cost of progress and technology on rural communities, in many ways the novel’s most successful and surprising current is its restrained exploration of women. Early on Mason notes that Isabel “felt herself part of a long line of daughters,” and later, dancing with other girls because most men have retreated south, it occurs to her: “I live in a world of women.” On the flatbed truck that eventually takes her to the city in search of wandering Isaias and a stable existence, she finds comfort holding hands with an anonymous girl, and once she arrives, solace in closeness to a coworker, Josiane. She in general has little interest in men apart from her brother, instructed by her mother and cousin to expect nothing from them. Above all, it’s the women of Mason’s world who are steadfast in their navigation of hunger, desire, and safety.
Yet it’s exactly Isaias and Isabel’s delicate, convincing and mutual sibling relationship that forms the nucleus of the story. Isabel’s love for her older brother is unconditional and borders on idolatry, and his loyalty to her is never doubtful, even from a distance. But though Isabel is a quiet force within the story, she is also patently disconnected, with few desires or earnest ambitions, and is rarely an active agent of her fate. She follows people from one place to another, drifting forward as if by the wind instead of her own will, contributing to the fleeting reality of the novel wherein little actually happens.
This is problematic for Mason who, in an effort to inject awareness and make prosaic some of her trajectory, occasionally imparts more sophistication and awareness than her experiences justify. For instance, when she is not yet knowledgeable in the ways of the city, she has an acute and surprising insight into how she is different: “I am like the girl on the flatbed, she thought, the black-haired girl who spoke a language no one knew.” Most of these instances occur during the book’s few awkward moments, when we’re wrenched from Mason’s third person trance into Isabel’s first-person inventory of inner doubts. Like the book’s end, which is different in tone and style and feels tacked-on, it seems a clunky means of addressing a need for transparency.
But these are small rifts in an otherwise polished story. Mason’s skill is distinct from the first page, and is enough to thwart uncertainty about plot or thematic intentions. His descriptive control can be overpowering, inebriating the reader, but it’s usually purposeful and often simply beautiful. It’s difficult not to pause at lines like “they watched the sky, pinning their hopes on distant clouds that vanished suddenly as if bewitched,” and “her memory was only a child’s memory, made of smells and light and the uneven surface of the road,” and remain content in merely savoring the mesmerizing panorama to which he delivers us.
Tales from the Torrid Zone: Travels in the Deep Tropics
By Alexander Frater
KNOPF; 384 pages; $25.95
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Traveling is not merely going from one place to another, and writing about it more than recording what happens, as Alexander Frater artfully demonstrates while conjuring of a lifetime of tropical travels in “Tales from the Torrid Zone.” It is a travelogue with dashes of memoir framed by studied musings on changing cultures; the result is an intimate and affectionate exploration of the region that bears the weight of both hemispheres.
It helps that Frater isn’t just any travel writer (though he was chief travel correspondent for The Observer in London) but a local. Thus the book fittingly begins on Iririki, his birthplace, one of 80 islands of Vanuatu, once cleped New Hebrides. For 39 years his grandfather, Maurice, converted souls to the Presbyterian faith, and Frater’s father later ran a hospital while his wife opened the first school. But like many raised on tropical, or even sub-tropical, islands, as a young adult Frater left to pursue a writing career in Europe that facilitated visits to at least 70 tropical countries, assuaging his le coup de bamboo: “a mild form of tropical madness for which, luckily, there is no cure.”
This book then, is a meandering account of remembered journeys, not only through small South Pacific islands, but also the Sudan, Oman, and Burma—truly spanning the globe. Its eclectic tales include an Amazon boat trip, eating magic mushrooms in Thailand, and dining with the Queen of Tonga in a leper colony. But the intention is not to survey the exotic—for Frater aligns himself with Levi Strauss’ assertion that “the tropics weren’t so much exotic, as out of date”—but a real man’s communion with his climactic and cultural origins.
We are his captive audience, following his anecdotes in whatever order they happen to appear, usually dictated by an evocative detail arising in a previous story. The people he meets along the way are most appealing, from heads of state to fellow travelers, as well as scions of exploration and Maurice, Frater’s unsuspecting metaphorical guide. Their descriptions illustrate his precise yet ebullient style, from depicting a woman as having “the plumpness that comes from a surfeit of sugared almonds,” to a man with “the delicate features and wide, luminous eyes of some arboreal leaf-eating creature, a bushbaby or marmoset.”
This descriptive legerdemain extends to his closely observed reflections on the natural world. Many are as exquisite as the scenery described, and too numerous to be recounted here, save for this restrained yet pungent remark while on the Irriwaddy River: “Under way again, we drank our rum neat and watched the dusk turn the river into the colour of lemons.” His voyage on the Irriwaddy and his visit to the Ilha de Mozambique are among the highlights, though the former is one of the more linear and enjoyable, perhaps because Frater sees rivers as “perfectly calibrated to the requirements of travel writing; each, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, had its own narrative flow.”
The rest of the narrative has scant discernable organization, yet at the same time it’s delicately encircled by the metaphor of a bell, beginning with his formative lessons by a “traveler in bells” who recuperated from malaria with Frater’s family, and continuing with his procurement of a new bell for his grandfather’s church, through to its eventual delivery. In between is a fascinating avalanche of exhaustive detail; whether on tropical disease, politics, or religion, Frater moves dexterously from a tiny object of memory to its global, scientific and historical significance. His chapter on the coconut is a prose ode that any islander will appreciate, especially his elevating conjecture that Eve should have bypassed the apple for the palm’s fruit.
Tender and humorous, yet erudite, Frater’s stories are expansive without being indulgent, spare without being confusing—it’s difficult to complain even of wanting a stronger narrative spine. Because though the temporal and contextual connections are often adrift, Frater himself is the book’s anchor—it is his mental expedition we follow more than any physical one. If trusted, the destination eventually materializes, the path punctuated by empathic reverence for all aspects of tropical existence. What’s important isn’t the timeline, but knowing and appreciating the land you visit, for what it is.