In A Sunburned Country

by Bill Bryson

Published by Doubleday Canada

304 pages, 2000


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Worth Getting to Know

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


There is a small cadre of travel writers who take you with them -- transporting their readers almost as if by magic -- as opposed to those who make lists of what hotels to stay at and where to go for the best hamburgers. Paul Theroux is, perhaps, one of the most revered and self-indulgent who -- nonetheless -- manages to evoke colors, scents and sounds with the smallest application of his golden pen. For the late Bruce Chatwin, writing about places was akin to writing a novel: it's widely acknowledged that he mixed a lot of fiction in with his traveling facts. Frances Mayes has been making a place for herself with her elegant and eloquent accounts of living and traveling in Italy. And then there's Bill Bryson.

The publication of each of his last seven books -- five of them travel-based -- has brought him an ever larger readership. Readers enjoy not only Bryson's special vision, but his humor, as well. To travel with Bryson is not to simply experience a locale. Bill Bryson has a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, the outlandish and sublime and he shares this with his readers in a generous, openhanded fashion.

In A Sunburned Country is Bryson's eighth book. In the acknowledgments he writes that, " the hope of forestalling ten thousand or so letters from readers pointing out that it should be called In a Sunburnt Country. I know it should, but it isn't." This is typical Bryson: the humor begins before the book does and it's subtle, satisfying and very real.

The new book details Bryson's special take on Australia, a country he professes to love:

The people are immensely likable -- cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted, and unfailingly obliging. Their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water. They have a society that is prosperous, well ordered, and instinctively egalitarian. The food is excellent. The beer is cold. The sun nearly always shines. There is coffee on every corner. Rupert Murdoch no longer lives there. Life doesn't get much better than this.

In a Sunburned Country, Bryson tells us that Australia is the largest island on the planet and -- in terms of land mass -- the sixth largest country. "It is also the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country." It is home of the largest living thing (the Great Barrier Reef), the top ten most poisonous snakes in the world, the largest monolith (Ayers Rock) and it has, "more things that will kill you than anywhere else."

Aside from being an interesting place from a geographic and natural standpoint -- after all, fully 80 percent of everything that lives in Australia, Bryson points out, exists no place else on earth -- exciting things happen there. And inexplicably, says the author, the rest of the world seems to barely notice.

Take, for example, the Japanese cult members whose avowed aim was to blow up the world. They got a good start in May of 1993 when they detonated an atomic bomb on a 500,000-acre property that the group owned in the Western Australian desert. The really striking thing about this is -- and, in truth, there are several -- that no one actually connected the boom and the cult until 1997. As Bryson says, Australia is a country so vast and empty "that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world's first non-governmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed. Clearly this is a place worth getting to know."

And get to know it he does. From the clean and congenial cities, to the rugged coastal regions and the largely uninhabited outback, Bryson takes us with him and we never, ever look back. It's a delight to be included on any one of Bill Bryson's journeys, but In a Sunburned Country is, in my opinion, Bryson's best to date. The best, actually, of a very good lot. | June 2000


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.