Colin Thubron 1939-
(Full name Colin Gerald Dryden Thubron) English travel writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Thubron's career through 2002.
A veteran world traveler, Thubron is a versatile writer who has won international acclaim for both his travel writing and novels. His works are commended for their portrayal of the changes and contradictions caused by the passage of time, displaying Thubron's keen sense of history and place. Thubron maintains a careful distance in his travel writing, revealing little about himself while fully describing the places he visits and the people he meets. The accounts of his travels through Russia and China are regarded by many critics as some of the most comprehensive portraits of those countries in contemporary literature. Thubron's novels display several of the qualities found his travel writing, including vivid descriptions and acute attention to cultural details.
Thubron was born in London on June 14, 1939, to Gerald Ernest Thubron, an army brigadier, and Evelyn Dryden Thubron, a descendant of the seventeenth-century poet John Dryden. Though his father was a military attaché who was stationed in Canada and the United States, Thubron attended boarding schools in England and studied at Eton College from 1953 to 1957. In 1959 he joined the editorial staff of the publishing firm Hutchinson and Company. Thubron left Hutchinson in 1962, and began to travel around the world, photographing several freelance television documentaries on Turkey, Morocco, and Japan for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). From 1964 to 1965, he worked on the editorial staff of the Macmillan Company of New York. In 1965 he began working as a freelance writer. His first full-length work, Mirror to Damascus (1967), details his experiences living in the city of Damascus in the fall and winter of 1965. Thubron's work has received a number of awards, including the PEN Silver Award for A Cruel Madness (1984) and the Thomas Cook Prize and the Hawthornden Prize for Behind the Wall: A Journey through China (1987). Additionally, Thubron's Turning Back the Sun (1991) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991 and To the Last City (2002) was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002.
Thubron is best known for his series of travelogues based on his experiences in Russia, China, Central Asia, and various other locales. Journey into Cyprus (1975) follows Thubron on a six-hundred-mile walking tour that takes him end-to-end and back and forth across the island of Cyprus, crossing and recrossing the boundaries between the warring Greek and Turkish areas. Most of his journey is through meadows and along barely discernible paths in areas frequented only by shepherds and farmers. At night, he sleeps in a variety of locations, including a medical clinic, a monastery, and a pigsty. One of Thubron's most acclaimed works, Among the Russians (1983), focuses on Thubron's ten-thousand-mile automobile journey across the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). This book describes travels undertaken during the height of the Cold War between the West and Communist Russia. Thubron details how difficult it was to travel freely throughout the country and how he was often trailed by KGB government agents. He offers portraits of a variety of Russian citizens and is openly critical of Russia's rate of alcoholism, state-sponsored oppression, and devotion to Communism. In Behind the Wall, Thubron ventures into another Communist country, China—this time travelling by train, bus, and plane. Thubron learns Mandarin Chinese in an attempt to fit in during his travels, but despite his best efforts, he still requires a translator to communicate with local Chinese citizens. Thubron finds himself standing out as an obvious foreigner and is confronted with many Chinese stereotypes about the West. Thubron returns his attention to China with The Silk Road: Beyond the Celestial Kingdom (1989), where he recounts his journey along the ancient trade route west from Xinjiang (formerly known as Sinkiang) in western China into East Turkistan and on to the fabled cities of Samarqand and Bukhara in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (today Uzbekistan). After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Thubron wrote The Lost Heart of Asia (1994), which follows his voyages though Central Asia, tracing the area's relationship with China, India, and Europe throughout history. In Siberia (1999), one of Thubron's most ambitious projects, explores the vast and barren Siberian countryside. Thubron describes the stark contrasts between the country's pristine wilderness areas and their heavily-polluted industrial zones while offering portraits of several isolated Siberian communities.
Although he is primarily known as a travel writer, Thubron has also written several novels. A Cruel Madness is narrated by Daniel Pashley, a schoolteacher who volunteers to teach the inmates at a local psychiatric hospital on weekends. Daniel discovers that his former lover, Sophia, is a patient at the asylum and he begins to reminisce about their affair. It eventually becomes clear that Daniel is actually a patient at the asylum and that his memories of Sophia may be delusions. Falling (1989) centers on a prisoner named Mark Swabey who is serving an one-year sentence for manslaughter. Mark falls in love with two women—Katherine, a stained-glass artist, and Clara, a high-wire circus performer who works without a net. Mark eventually leaves Katherine, only to have Clara suffer a debilitating accident during her act. Mark gives Clara a lethal dose of medicine to help end her suffering and is apprehended by the police. Turning Back the Sun is set in an unnamed colonial country in the 1930s. The protagonist, Dr. Rayner, has been exiled to a frontier outpost after failing his medical examinations. Nostalgic for his sophisticated boyhood home, Rayner has to deal with a mysterious rash that is turning the white colonists' skin as dark as that of the natives. The colonists blame the natives for their affliction, a drought frays tempers even further, and a massacre of the natives is narrowly averted. Distance (1996) focuses on Edward Sanders, a young astronomer studying black holes. When he loses his memory, he must piece together the last fourteen months of his life, including the trauma which precipitated his amnesia. In 2002 Thubron published To the Last City, a fictional account of five travellers journeying through the Peruvian Andes in search of the lost city of Vilcabamba.
Reviewers have consistently praised Thubron's travel writing, noting how he deeply immerses himself into foreign countries and have lauded the numerous cultural insights found in his travelogues. Philip Marsden has stated that, “Of all his generation of travel writers (Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban and Bruce Chatwin), Thubron is the one who manages best to get beneath the skin of his subjects.” Thubron's sense of humor and stark honesty in his descriptive passages has also been applauded by critics. Many commentators have appreciated Thubron's mixture of personal and historical references in his travel writing, though some reviewers have argued that this blend of the objective and subjective has contributed to a number of factual inaccuracies in Thubron's works. In terms of his writing style, critics have drawn attention to the lyrical quality of his prose. Guy Mannes-Abbott has stated that, “[Thubron's] writing is intelligent, reflective and evinces a quietly singular style.” Thubron's novels have not received the same critical attention as his travel writing, with some critics charging that Thubron's fictional works are not nearly as engaging or fully realized as his nonfiction works. Though some reviewers have commended his use of symbolism and historical detail in his novels, others have complained that Thubron's characterizations and plotlines are weak and ill-conceived.
Mirror to Damascus (travel writing) 1967
The Hills of Adonis: A Quest in Lebanon (travel writing) 1968
Jerusalem (travel writing) 1969
Journey into Cyprus (travel writing) 1975
The God in the Mountain (novel) 1977
Emperor (novel) 1978
Among the Russians (travel writing) 1983; also published as Where Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car through Western Russia, 1984
A Cruel Madness (novel) 1984
Behind the Wall: A Journey through China (travel writing) 1987
Falling (novel) 1989
The Silk Road: Beyond the Celestial Kingdom [with photographs by Carlos Navajas] (travel writing) 1989
Turning Back the Sun (novel) 1991
The Lost Heart of Asia (travel writing) 1994
Distance (novel) 1996
In Siberia (travel writing) 1999
To the Last City (novel) 2002
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SOURCE: Semenova, Olga. “Top to Bottom.” New Statesman 106, no. 2744 (21 October 1983): 23.
[In the following review, Semenova examines what Among the Russians and Roy Medvedev's All Stalin's Men reveal about contemporary Russian society.]
[Roy Medvedev and Colin Thubron] create a picture of Soviet society by examining some of the individuals who compose it. But they look at this society from opposite ends. The sharp contrast between these two accounts illustrates one of the more serious problems now facing the Soviet leadership.
In All Stalin's Men, Roy Medvedev describes the careers of six of those who rose to prominence in Stalin's shadow and remained in power on his death: Voroshilov, Mikoyan, Suslov, Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov. Medvedev's unique position as a ‘dissident’ still tolerated by Moscow has enabled him to gather material which brings these grey figures to life; the modest Voroshilov, a brave partisan leader but incompetent general; the dashing and superbly efficient Mikoyan, organiser of supplies during World War II; the grim and cautious Suslov, a ‘Chief Ideologist’ who ‘made not one original remark’; Molotov, ‘Stoney-Arse,’ a cold and competent bureaucrat, who carried out all Stalin's orders without hesitation (including that to send his own wife to labour camp), the ruthless and brutal Kaganovich, responsible for the...
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SOURCE: Maclean, Fitzroy. “The Earth Mother.” Spectator 252, no. 8139 (7 July 1984): 27.
[In the following excerpt, Maclean discusses Thubron's examination of Russian culture in Among the Russians.]
Colin Thubron's latest book, Among the Russians, can only serve to enhance his well-deserved reputation. I enjoyed every page of it. It is well observed, well written and, unlike many books about Russia, gives proof of an unusual and penetrating insight into the character of the country and people. Having long been fascinated by Russia, the author learned Russian and, climbing into his Morris Marina, set out to explore it, covering about 10,000 miles in the process. Not everyone realises that, despite the machinations of what he aptly calls ‘a jungly and unconquerable bureaucracy,’ it is perfectly possible to do this.
During his journey, Mr Thubron made a number of important discoveries, not least that the Second World War so haunts the Russian consciousness that no understanding of Russia is possible without it. He also discovered, as he motored across it, the immense size of the Russian plain, its psychological effect on the Russians and their close attachment to their country's soil. ‘From her own people,’ he writes, ‘Russia elicits a helpless worship of belonging … She contains them with the elemental despotism of an earth mother.’ With this he rightly links the...
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SOURCE: Dirlam, Sharon. Review of A Cruel Madness, by Colin Thubron. Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 October 1985): 22.
[In the following review, Dirlam offers a positive assessment of A Cruel Madness, praising the novel as “gripping tale of passion.”]
[In A Cruel Madness,] the calm voice of a rational man tells the story of his quiet life with all the drama of dry sticks rubbing together, rubbing, rubbing, until there's spark, a trail of smoke, a flicker, and the next thing you know you are surrounded by the fire of his passionate obsession. There are clues along the way that the story will slip from normalcy, the “spasms of recognition” of a man who sees his beloved 10 years after their brief affair, the “absurd desolation” he feels when she slips away again. Thubron has a gift for description (as one would expect of an award-winning travel writer): “Every wall of the hospital is lacerated with fire escapes,” or, “In early morning, when the mist steals off the hills, and round the hospital, you might imagine the whole institution underwater and its giant trees turned to seaweeds.” The narrator seems to be telling you the facts, but you slowly realize that all may not be as it seems to him. Sophia, his lover, may be a patient in the Welsh lunatic asylum where much of the tale unfolds. The narrator, Daniel, may be a volunteer worker there, as he says. Thubron...
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SOURCE: Pool, Gail. Review of Where Nights Are Longest, by Colin Thubron. Christian Science Monitor 79, no. 199 (8 September 1987): 21-2
[In the following excerpt, Pool notes that Where Nights Are Longest does not present a flattering portrait of the Soviet Union.]
“Nobody from the West enters the Soviet Union without prejudice,” says Colin Thubron at the start of Where Nights Are Longest. “But I think I wanted to know and embrace this enemy I had inherited.”
To a large degree, Thubron's journey through Russia is an exploration of attitudes, the Soviets' and his own. It would be nice to report that he discovered that his negative bias was without foundation. But this was not the case. Indeed, neither his book nor Peregrine Hodson's account of a journey through Soviet-occupied Afghanistan—two outstanding entries in the new Atlantic Monthly Traveler series—is likely to endear Soviet power to Western readers.
Thubron set off in the summer of 1980, traveling by car and staying mainly at campsites. His route took in Moscow, Leningrad, the Baltic states, the Caucasus, regions on the Turkish border and the Ukraine—in all, some 10,000 miles through a land whose vastness never ceased to impress him: “Wherever you touch it, you are conscious of a giant, alienating hinterland. You are always, somehow, on the periphery.”
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SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. London Review of Books 9, no. 17 (1 October 1987): 21.
[In the following excerpt, Mantel praises Behind the Wall for its ability to portray Chinese society in a manner that makes sense to readers.]
Colin Thubron is a gifted and accomplished travel writer, whose book Among the Russians has been described as one of the best travel books written this century. To him the opening-up of China was ‘like discovering a new room in a house in which you'd lived all your life.’ He is a perceptive and honest traveller [in Behind the Wall,] aware of the burden of his own expectations, his head prone to fill with ‘savage and condescending notions’: at first it seemed that the Chinese he met were engaged in a conspiracy to fulfil every Western cliche about themselves. At an early stage, he feels intense frustration: ‘At every moment, around every corner, the question Who are they? erupts and nags.’ There is a feeling that real life is being conducted just out of his range of vision; and in the cities of China this is literally true, as the earth beneath is ‘perforated like a rotten cheese’ with a network of nuclear shelters, and in Beijing there are restaurants, libraries, hotels, hospitals, all under the ground.
He travelled, too, in a realm of ghosts, the millions who died in the...
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SOURCE: Rocca, Francis X. Review of Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, by Colin Thubron. American Spectator 22, no. 1 (January 1989): 44.
[In the following excerpt, Rocca compares Behind the Wall with Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, noting the unique ways that the authors describe their journeys through China.]
Here is the first literary fruit of the new access to China: [Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux and Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron,] two first-person accounts of solitary travel on the mainland. The authors are prominent, and both divide their careers as novelists and travel writers. Paul Theroux, the more popular and more prolific, is an American. Colin Thubron is an Englishman who has won critical praise for his books on Cyprus and Western Russia. Both of them reside in England. Except for Manchuria and Tibet, where only Theroux ventures, they cover literally the same ground, but they stay worlds apart in style and temperament.
Theroux, according to his custom, goes almost exclusively by rail—even to get to China in the first place: for the first chapter, he crawls through Europe and the Soviet Union. His terrestrialism serves him well in the PRC, where the national airline's acronym, CAAC, is said to stand for “China Airlines Always Crashes” (or “Cancels”). Fortunately, the trains run on time. The train that...
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SOURCE: Fairbank, John K. “Keeping Up with the New China.” New York Review of Books 36, no. 4 (16 March 1989): 17-20.
[In the following excerpt, Fairbank discusses Thubron's first-person account of his travels through China in Behind the Wall.]
Another approach to China's current transformation is to go and poke about in it, registering one's personal impressions. First-person travel accounts, naturally limited in scope, give us what truth the writer can offer. David Kidd's sometimes charming reminiscences [in Peking Story] recall the Peking so loved by foreign aesthetes before Mao destroyed it. Kidd, age twenty, taught English and studied art in Peking universities between 1946 and 1950, fascinated by the remnants of the old China. Foreigners were still privileged people and as a young man of artistic interests and cultural sensitivity, he was able to get the use of a room at the back gate of the Summer Palace complex, where the Empress Dowager had held sway forty years before.
After 1949 Peking for the moment continued to be a remarkably open society for foreign residents. The communist ideology was just beginning to take hold. Peking Story is romantic. A daughter named Aimee of the once great Yu family picks up David Kidd at the theater, brings him into the ancestral household, and marries him. Sure enough, they escape to America in 1950 and amicably separate as she...
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SOURCE: Bien, Gloria. Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. America 160, no. 12 (1 April 1989): 300.
[In the following excerpt, Bien offers a positive assessment of Behind the Wall, praising its humor and poetic prose.]
Colin Thubron's Behind the Wall presents a personal meeting of China and the West through his own experience. Born in London, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, author of two novels and several travel books, Thubron learned Mandarin before beginning his solitary journey through China. Carrying only a rucksack and traveling by train, bus and plane, in autumn and early winter 1985, he encountered and conversed with a great variety of people. Their confidences are often remarkably similar to those found in the works already discussed, though Thubron acknowledges himself to be a “foreign devil,” “obscenely tall” (six-feet tall), with an “anteater nose.” After months of sleeping on trains, in fields and in rat-infested hotels reserved for native Chinese, of eating meager meals of fruit, biscuits and occasionally “bones with bits of indecipherable meat,” of being bombarded with questions (“Are you American? “How much do you make?” “How much does that cost?”), and of being stared at by growing crowds for hours on end, Thubron describes a sense of fatigue that he calls “attrition.” His reader can only shudder in sympathy and...
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SOURCE: Gernant, Karen. Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. Journal of Asian Studies 48, no. 2 (May 1989): 377-79.
[In the following review, Gernant argues that Behind the Wall does a better job of furthering the Westerner's understanding of China than Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster.]
Both [Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron and Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux] are accounts of relatively short journeys in China and are meant for general readers. Colin Thubron's book is an authentic, balanced depiction of China—and of an outsider's struggle to understand. He brings to his journey a probing but sensitive curiosity, as well as stereotypes about Chinese inscrutability. His quest for understanding gives the lie to these latter images. At the start, China is a “luminous puzzle” (p. 2) holding “a billion uncomprehended people” (p. 3) who are “opaque” and “inhibited” (p. 7). But such references recede to be largely replaced by genuine regard for individuals representing diverse views, occupations, and dreams. Training his lens squarely on China and the Chinese, Thubron presents crisp portraits.
By contrast Paul Theroux plods. He rarely seems as engaged as Thubron. His style is less compelling, with vague words (“pretty,” “weird”) cluttering his writing. “Any travel book,” writes Theroux, “revealed more about the...
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SOURCE: Reading, Peter. “Ethical Feats.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4510 (8 September 1989): 968.
[In the following negative review, Reading criticizes Falling, calling the novel “not particularly original.”]
Colin Thubron's very short new novel, Falling, is concise rather than concentrated. It tells the story of Mark Swabey (No. 63176), formerly a journalist on the Hampshire Times, who recalls his history from inside prison, where he is serving a sentence for manslaughter. The events leading to Swabey's incarceration are these: he jettisons his steady girlfriend Katherine, an artist and maker of stained-glass windows, so that he may devote his attention to Clara, a trapeze artiste, star of a run-down circus about which he has written a feature; journalist and aerialist become lovers; Clara, predictably, has an accident during a performance and plummets to the sawdust; her resulting paralysis (from the neck down) is heart-rendingly described; Mark, humanely and at her request, procures and administers barbiturates to ease her passing and is accordingly sentenced.
But, of course, the book is meant to be more than its plot. The blurb makes much of the symbolic implications of gravity-defying high-wire acts (“the courage to aim beyond human limitation”), of gaol being a microcosm of “the wider prison outside,” and so on—and Thubron openly avails...
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Of Love and Death.” Spectator 263, no. 8410 (16 September 1989): 43.
[In the following review, Brookner discusses the theme of obsessive love in Falling.]
The obsessive love affair used to inspire more novels than it does today, as if obsessive love were the one commodity that our consumer society could not afford. Colin Thubron dealt with such an affair most effectively in his last novel, A Cruel Madness, and he returns to the theme here [in Falling], giving it a new dimension of strangeness. Yet what emerges from both novels is the very old-fashioned Romantic notion that love and death occupy the same mysterious terrain, that the one leads inevitably to the other, and that a death, however crazed, however compromised, is the fitting conclusion—indeed the only conclusion—to the type of love which exceeds the norm, which is baroque, ardent, unsociable, and possibly, in its intensity, one-sided. The Romantic movement acknowledged this kind of love as vampiric, sadistic: it was seen as a grandiose affliction, from which only one of the two unfortunates involved could possibly survive.
But what kind of survival would be appropriate in such a case? Colin Thubron's hero (and in Romantic terms one must call him a hero) begins his story in a prison cell. His crime is not nameless but it is kept under wraps until two thirds of the way through this...
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SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. “Going to Bed with an Author on Your Reading List.” London Review of Books 11, no. 18 (28 September 1989): 18.
[In the following excerpt, Wall offers a mixed assessment of Falling, but asserts that the novel consistently maintains its momentum.]
Colin Thubron's hero [in Falling] has to do with falling in a physical and, more vaguely, metaphysical sense. Mark Swabey is in prison for a crime whose actual nature isn't revealed until near the end of this terse tale, but which is connected with his passion for Clara, a trapeze artist of unusual grace and daring.
As a journalist, he is fascinated by the extent to which the circus world is outside normal society and enclosed on itself; he is astonished when Clara says she's never been in a church. It's like living in an alien culture, and Clara represents it at its purest, just as the troupe she's loyal to show it at its tattiest. The arabesque which is the climax of her act, done far above the audience without safety-net, is an act of self-delight. She's in another world, and when she falls back into this one the result is inevitably tragic.
When he meets Clara, Mark is already in love with Katherine, also an artist but one who designs stained-glass windows. She is having great difficulty in rendering the fall of Lucifer, with whom she feels little affinity. Colour of any kind seems...
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SOURCE: Gittings, John. Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. Third World Quarterly 12, nos. 3-4 (1990-91): 173-75.
[In the following review, Gittings compares Behind the Wall with Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster.]
Even a good travel book about China—and [Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron and Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux] are much more than travel books—now has to be measured against the grim standard of Tiananmen Square. Did Colin Thubron, or Paul Theroux, both exploring from north to south two or three years before the Beijing massacre, somehow grasp the key in one of their casual but profound conversations on night trains and day buses? Was it there, but too subtly concealed? The two writers are very different, one from England and the other from the USA; Thubron carefully selective, Theroux with a deceptively careless tendency to list everything down to the size of the squat toilets.
Yet both get so many things exactly right: the variety of Chinese laughs none of which denote humour, the obsession with food, the hovering sense of recent history, the way that the traveller hates travelling but cannot stop. Both get on well, too, with the Chinese, although Thubron makes contact with the solitary while Theroux mixes with the crowd. I dare say that their names in Chinese must have sounded very similar too: Mr Tampon (Thubron) and...
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SOURCE: Gooderham, Tim. “Flight Away from Danger.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4614 (6 September 1991): 21.
[In the following review, Gooderham argues that Turning Back the Sun and Falling are both examples of how Thubron “is one of the current masters of the short novel.”]
Colin Thubron's novels are concerned with emotional extremes; in Turning Back the Sun, his latest, he frames those extremes within the geographical and cultural oppositions which are familiar from his travel writing. Like its predecessor, Falling (1989), this book is pivoted on a difficult choice; though, here, the choice involves a flight away from danger and exhilaration rather than towards it.
The protagonist, Rayner, is a doctor who practises in an isolated town in an unspecified country with a colonial background. Marooned by residential restrictions, he remains isolated in a fragmented, backward community riven with prejudice and hypocrisy and wary of the “savages” who continue a nomadic existence in the surrounding wilderness. The story opens during a particularly hot summer, when murders on outlying farms and the outbreak of an unknown disease bring racial hostility to the surface, and increase Rayner's desire to go back to the country's capital, scene of his happy childhood and his first love.
By the time he does get the chance to return, things...
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SOURCE: Lawson, Neroli. “Face Values.” New Statesman and Society 120, no. 4055 (18 October 1991): 36.
[In the following review, Lawson criticizes Turning Back the Sun, calling the work “shallow” and “crude.”]
If you are fond of Colin Thubron, do not spoil it by reading this novel [Turning Back the Sun]. It has some dense, elliptical prose and some fertile imagery. But these fine patches only show up the rest as pedestrian and obvious.
The story concerns white men's ignorance and hostility, out in frontier country, towards native blacks. Rayner, our white hero, espouses the black cause. The moral crisis is illustrated by having Rayner and his childhood friend act out opposing parts. Thubron is looking at questions of the city versus the wilderness, and of the savage versus the civilised ethos. His savages, black and earth-connected, feel like Australian aboriginals. His terrain is lofty and unforgiving, like the Silk Road of China. There is, in addition, a love story.
Having set up his drama, Thubron finds his conclusion by bringing most of his strands together. These are reasonable novelistic conventions. But he fails to entice this reader with any scent of mystery.
His most successful character is the landscape, described with fluency and a wide but unshowy vocabulary. This is as true of the city as of the wilderness, and he...
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SOURCE: Abel, Betty. Review of Turning Back the Sun, by Colin Thubron. Contemporary Review 260, no. 1513 (February 1992): 101-03.
[In the following excerpt, Abel offers a positive assessment of Turning Back the Sun.]
In Colin Thubron's remarkably imaginative novel, Turning Back the Sun, the two places which he recreates are unreal but at the same time impressively realistic. Existing in an unidentified country, they possess characteristically Australian attributes with alien overtones of political coercion in terms of pass laws and work permits. A shabby, dry frontier town is the centre of the action but the capital city which we never visit is fertile in everyone's nostalgic memories as well as being physically by the water's edge. Typically hinterland country leads out only to the wilderness where the aboriginal natives regard the encroaching town with incomprehension and continue their more important rituals in spite of the apparent sophistication of the disenchanted town dwellers. Even two ‘savages’ Rayner adopts are uninvolved. These aboriginals become a silent fringe between the town and the blue distance about which neither they nor the ‘white men’ are at all curious. Their one dramatic outburst, totally unexpected, comes as a climax at the end of the book. They mass together silently, terrifyingly, covered in white glistening paint and surge towards the headlands in the...
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SOURCE: Murphy, Dervla. “Not Only the Past, Brittle with Relics.” Spectator 273, no. 8672 (24 September 1994): 44.
[In the following review, Murphy praises Thubron's insight and attention to detail in The Lost Heart of Asia.]
Yes, they said, they were Yagnobski. They all spoke Sogdian in the home, young and old, and had inherited the language from their parents, by ear … I listened almost in disbelief. This, I told myself, was the last, distorted echo of the battle-cries shouted 2500 years ago by the armies of the Great Kings at Marathon and Thermopylae, all that remained from the chant of Zoroastrian priests or the pleas of Persian satraps to Alexander the Great. Yet it was spoken by impoverished goatherds in the Pamirs.
Colin Thubron's search for those goatherds took him through the north-west Pamir on tracks that climbed to 11,000 feet and caused his friend Oman's battered Lada to ‘buck like a stallion’ and subsequently to develop arcane defects. Merely to think of this author's pen at work on the Pamirs makes the heart beat faster and in Chapter 10 his lyricism is at its most inspired. The Lost Heart of Asia is not a book to be read quickly. On almost every page gleam burnished paragraphs, prose only in their form, in their sensibility pure poetry—and yet, in the precision of each detail, as exact as a photograph....
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SOURCE: Malcomson, Scott. “Game Park for Hominids.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4774 (30 September 1994): 26.
[In the following review, Malcomson compliments the prose in The Lost Heart of Asia, but argues that Thubron does not have an adequate grasp of Central Asian history.]
Colin Thubron is among the most exemplary of contemporary Western travel writers, and his new book, The Lost Heart of Asia, which relates his travels through the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, should further his already considerable reputation. He brings special gifts to the task, wielding an athletic and sprightly vocabulary (now I have “ondine,” “pelmet” and “bungaloid” in my word-bank). I'm not at all certain, however, that mare's milk can be “fomented” (though it is fermented) or that heads can be “shriven” to skulls, but the images conjured are entrancing. This semantic facility certainly makes what may have been dull moments more exciting—his trademark descriptive passages, both baroque and terse, are carefully paced:
I approached his audience-chamber through a ruined gate where a stone lion roared harmlessly, and entered an empty field of paving. The plinths of a lost arcade made orphaned rows of stone. At the end, on a long dais, the canopy of the vanished throne rose on wonky pillars, and touched the dereliction with a...
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SOURCE: Mortimer, Molly. “A Writer Who Travels.” Contemporary Review 266, no. 1553 (June 1995): 334-35.
[In the following review, Mortimer praises Thubron's “picturesque prose” in The Lost Heart of Asia.]
There are travellers who write and writers who travel. Between them lies a river of reality. Colin Thubron belongs to the second class. He is no Thessiger or Post. He has an excellent mixture [in The Lost Heart of Asia] as before which teases out into gobbets of history and chats with the natives, heavily larded with epithet and adjective of which he has a large and original variety; and uses deftly. But like an over rich cake, scintillation can sicken and so die like gorgeous palaces of the ‘Tempest.’ There is a certain egoism which informs us that his first book was written in a monastery; the second in a brothel. For travel books he needs the conscious eccentricity of Holland Park, within reach of libraries.
This creates the unworthy thought that a first-class journalist might have created this book without stirring. There is plenty of material for Thubron's fascinating excursions round the Asiatic Muslim States of the ex-Soviet Union and even more down the great Sea River Oxus, where was enacted the tragedy of Sohrab and Rustem, and where Alexander nearly lost his army to thirst in 329 BC.
Thubron evokes vividly the vast shapelessness of an area...
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SOURCE: Peters, Bill. Review of The Lost Heart of Asia, by Colin Thubron. Asian Affairs 26, no. 3 (October 1995): 323-24.
[In the following review, Peters examines Thubron's exploration of the role of Islam in Central Asia in The Lost Heart of Asia.]
This reisebeschreibung [The Lost Heart of Asia] is a worthy addition to Colin Thubron's already substantial and distinguished corpus on his expeditions in Asia. His journey began with a flight across the Caspian and the Karakum to Ashkhabad, and ended near Torugart in the east of Kyrgystan beyond Lake Issyk Kul on the western border of Xinjiang. It was made during the first spring and summer after the dissolution of the USSR, in the early months of the “independence” of the six Central Asian Republics. It provides glimpses, therefore, of that part of the world where the “new order” may be expected to bring the greatest changes, where the potential for conflict and revanchism may be very great, and where newly emerging forces both racial and religious may result in transformations yet to be imagined. I am reminded of the reaction of a young British officer of Dunsterforce in the Caucasus during the upheavals of 1917-1918 who said, “Undreamed of things were materialising. The world was in flux and everything seemed possible.”
Clearly one of the questions in Thubron's mind was the future role of Islam, seen...
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SOURCE: Quinn, Anthony. Review of Distance, by Colin Thubron. Observer (15 September 1996): 15.
[In the following review, Quinn criticizes the “implausibilities” in Distance, but notes that the novel does keep the reader engaged.]
The metaphor twinkling over Colin Thubron's new novel [Distance] feels almost too perfect a fit for his stricken narrator. Edward, an edgy young astronomer, has been pursuing research into black holes: ‘The ghosts that haunt our universe … the core of massive stars that have died, collapsed in on themselves aeons ago and shrunk to nuggets of near infinite density.’ Somewhere in the course of his studies, however, Edward has stumbled into a black hole of his own: he has lost his memory, and finds himself sealed off from the past. He was rather proud of his powers of recall before (‘I knew Schrödinger's wave equation by heart’); now he can't even remember the woman he lives with.
Naomi, the woman in question, is understandably at a loss, while Edward begins a slow and painful excavation of his recent past. The operations of the mind, he learns, are as darkly mysterious as the constellations he has made his life's study. Memories return piecemeal—his mother's death a year before breaks anew upon the walls of his consciousness, but this is not the trauma that has undone him: ‘Between my last memory and now, I think,...
(The entire section is 731 words.)
SOURCE: Reynolds, Oliver. “Speaking Subjectively.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4877 (20 September 1996): 23.
[In the following review, Reynolds discusses Thubron's use of scientific concepts in Distance.]
Edward Sanders, the narrator of Colin Thubron's sixth novel, Distance, is doing postgraduate research into black holes. At the start of the novel, he has lost his short-term memory: “The first thing I notice is the hand resting on the tablecloth. It is lean, almost delicate. I move it a little, to be sure it is mine.” By the end, he has remembered the shocking events which provoked his amnesia, and the book's structure, alternating present and past, follows the gradual recovery of his memory. One of the strengths of the novel is its depiction of the self as a function of time: how can you exist in the present without the ballast of the past? Sanders's repressed memories are bound up with a love-affair; as in all of Thubron's novels, the central relationship in Distance is that between a man and a woman, seen from the man's perspective. The patterns of feeling are familiar from his other work and their archetypal form is found in his fourth novel, Falling (1990), in which the narrator is besotted with a trapeze-artist. Disabled by love, the male gazes upward where the female, spotlit by desire, remains impossibly aloof.
Sanders is obsessed with a fellow...
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SOURCE: Montrose, David. “And If Thou Wilt, Remember.” Spectator 277, no. 8775 (21 September 1996): 54.
[In the following review, Montrose argues that Distance is not as strong as Thubron's previous novel, A Cruel Madness.]
The protagonists of Colin Thubron's more recent novels—A Cruel Madness (1984), Falling (1989), and Turning Back the Sun (1991)—were tormented by that ambivalent mixture, memory and desire. Each hankered after the irretrievable: a lost time, a lost woman. At the start of Distance, Thubron's narrator has lost even remembrance of such things. Edward Sanders, a 30-ish astronomer, emerges from a fugue state to find himself alone at a restaurant table in a town he does not recognise; his last two years are blank. The nearest hospital diagnoses retrograde amnesia caused by ‘something intolerable.’ Ascertaining the nature of that something provides the novel's mainspring.
As predicted, the missing pieces soon begin to return, earliest first, in erratic spurts, progressively drawing closer to the origin of Edward's trauma. On the way to that denouement, Thubron maintains and manipulates suspense with notable finesse. From the outset, Edward is hazily aware of ‘her’: a woman, central to his existence, of whom all knowledge falls entirely within the blank. Guided by the address on an envelope, he makes his way to an unfamiliar...
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SOURCE: Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “Return to the Wild East.” Independent (2 October 1999): 9.
[In the following review, Mannes-Abbott argues that Thubron's descriptions of natural landscapes in In Siberia are “exceptional.”]
In the early 1980s, Colin Thubron drove his Morris Marina across the Western face of Brezhnev's bankrupt Soviet Union. His account of that visit, Among the Russians, began “I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember.” Although that predictable Western apprehension melted during encounters with the Russians themselves, he was chased out of the country by the KGB.
In that first account, Siberia was “the forbidding heart of this whole continent” and lent an “invisible enormity to everything.” Almost 20 years later, after two further explorations of Asia—Behind the Wall and The Lost Heart of Asia—Thubron confronts his realm of “indelible fear” in this new book [In Siberia].
Siberia is a place of legendary bleakness and mystery. Once seen as “Russia's Wild East,” where serfdom was illegal even under the Tsars, it has long been the “limbo” into which Russian autocrats poured “the viral waste of an empire—criminal, vagabond, dissident.” Siberia became a place of labour camps or gulags that people—including writers like Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam—were sent...
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SOURCE: Harman, Nicholas. “Vodka, Vodka Everywhere.” Spectator 283, no. 8931 (9 October 1999): 45.
[In the following review, Harman examines Thubron's search for religious faith in In Siberia.]
Under tsars and dictators alike, only Russians were allowed into Siberia, and for Russians the trip was a fate worse than death. Since we won the Cold War all that is changed, and Colin Thubron went there off his own bat. He too found Siberia horrible. It was hard to get around, hard to find somewhere to sleep, hard to find anyone to talk to, harder still to keep warm. But that was not his main problem [in In Siberia].
The myth of travel books is that they are written by people who have been somewhere and are keen to tell others about it. The present reality is that the book is often the motive for the journey, to boil the pots of those who can't make a decent living out of good novels. Thubron, a good novelist, is an excellent travel writer, few better. But like a biographer who finds, after starting work and signing the contract, that his subject is after all quite dull, he has to go on writing as though he is keen on what he writes about. For all his skill, Thubron couldn't.
If he had prepared himself for the journey by reading the economic stuff, he would have known that Russia's failure has broken down its adjacent colonies even more comprehensively than itself....
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SOURCE: Thomson, Ian. “A Thaw in the Gulag: Where Has the KGB Gone?” Guardian (9 October 1999): 10.
[In the following review, Thomson offers a positive assessment of In Siberia, calling it Thubron's “finest achievement to date.”]
Colin Thubron brings back few souvenirs of his solitary wanderings, but his notebooks are crammed with life stories. From these he fashions a meticulous reportage tinged with poetry. His two wonderful accounts of communist Russia and China—Among the Russians and Behind the Wall—narrated the lives of ordinary people trapped beneath the crust of dictatorship. Classics of the genre, they were written with an unerring eye for human desolation. Thubron's eighth travel book, In Siberia, contemplates Stalin's slave-labour camps and the frozen immensity of Tartar territory. This is some undertaking. Weeds now sprout from the isolation cells and the Gulag watch-towers have grown over with moss. Yet the abandoned sites still overwhelm with their sense of past suffering. My mother, as a Russian Balt persecuted by Stalin, lost friends to the Siberian ice-fields. Among them was the Tallinn lawyer Arnold Susi, a key figure in Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. In 1945 Susi vanished in the deeps of Novosibirsk, a statistic among the millions of Siberian dead.
How is Thubron (a descendant of the first poet laureate, John...
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SOURCE: Thubron, Colin, and Independent Sunday. Independent Sunday (10 October 1999): 2.
[In the following interview, Thubron discusses his body of work and his career as a travel writer.]
It almost comes as a shock to discover that Colin Thubron is a real traveller. From his writings, it is possible to imagine a kind of poetic aristocrat floating across continents, absorbing beauty and wisdom effortlessly from clouds and landscapes. In fact, he is the ultimate off-the-beaten-track backpacker.
“When I'm researching for a book, I'm not fussed about comfort,” Thubron explains when I ask him how he sustains himself on his journeys. Now 60, he recently spent four months travelling alone through the wildernesses of Siberia [for his book In Siberia], unearthing accommodation and transport possibilities in a land covered by no guidebook. “When you travel out of fascination, of course you push yourself,” he says. “Your own comforts drop away. What depresses me on my trips is if I fail to find that old shaman I want to talk to, not being cold or uncomfortable. In a place like Siberia, discomfort is part of the personality of the land.”
He comes across as a dishevelled public schoolboy, but his travels would challenge the most intrepid backpacker. If there is a chance of meeting, say, a genuine Entsy (an indigenous Siberian), Thubron will not hesitate...
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SOURCE: Reisz, Matthew. “Where Time Goes in Circles.” Independent Sunday (24 October 1999): 12.
[In the following review, Reisz discusses the disillusionment and lack of hope that Thubron describes in In Siberia.]
In parts of Eastern Siberia, writes Colin Thubron [in In Siberia], the “snow-glazed desolation” of the forest is “over a thousand miles deep from north to south, and the suffocating closeness of its trees, crowding out all distances, any perspective, has driven people literally mad. Magnetic anomalies can doom even a sane traveller here, while his compass-point swings uselessly.” Much of this astonishing book evokes a world so vast, so lacking in landmarks, that it is easy to see why many are driven to madness, to excessive drinking of vodka (or machine oil), to nostalgia, nationalism or religious fanaticism.
Lake Baikal is full of weird evolutionary leftovers: sturgeons carrying 20 pounds of caviar; red-eyed shrimps packed 25,000 to the square yard “fondling the dark with preposterously long antennae”; and the fatty golianka, “some so translucent you can read a book through them.” And, unlike the mammoths freed from the permafrost, many of Siberia's human inhabitants seem trapped in a past not yet ready to release them. A drunken illegitimate descendant of Rasputin struggles to create something from his heritage. An academician living near...
(The entire section is 798 words.)
SOURCE: Pryce-Jones, David. “From Fear to Pity.” National Review 51, no. 24 (20 December 1999): 64-6.
[In the following review, Pryce-Jones examines the change in Thubron's attitude toward Russia between Among the Russians and In Siberia.]
Colin Thubron first visited the Soviet Union at the height of its powers, in the closing years of the Brezhnev era. Among the Russians, the travel book he then wrote, begins with the unforgettable sentence, “I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember.” It was an appropriate Cold War response. The Russians were then a universal menace. Whatever were they asking of themselves, and of us? How could they unleash such violence, to such deliberately murderous ends? These were questions quite as much human as political.
A marvelous reporter of detail that builds into the big picture, Thubron sought only humdrum encounters with humdrum people. He speaks enough Russian to pass as some sort of a native, perhaps an Estonian.
The scent of something gangrenous infused the whole trip. Death was in the air. As a key to the upheaval that was about to happen, that travel book of his was truer than innumerable editorials and learned books about the permanent achievements of Communism.
After the collapse of the Soviet empire, he visited the Muslim republics of Central Asia that had just recovered...
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SOURCE: Thubron, Colin, and Gayle Feldman. “The Art of Traveling Well.” Publishers Weekly 217, no. 9 (28 February 2000): 54-5.
[In the following interview, Thubron discusses how he became a travel writer and how he approaches his work.]
Not all travel writers travel equally well from one side of the Atlantic to the other, even if the subtlety of their observations and seductiveness of their words argue that they should.
The name Colin Thubron resonates far less in America than the names of British and American peers such as Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Jan Morris or the late Bruce Chatwin. Yet in his native England the long, lanky man with the boyish shock of hair, grave face and light voice is recognized as one of the best literary traveling companions a reader can find.
In eight works spanning more than three decades, he's delved into Central Asia and China (The Lost Heart of Asia; Behind the Wall), traversed Western Russia (Where Nights Are Longest) and now, at age 60, has attempted to pierce the depths of Russia's melancholy soul in his latest book, In Siberia, published by HarperCollins (Dec. 20, 1999). In between far-flung sojourns, he's explored wrenching inner landscapes in a half-dozen slim novels—including Turning Back the Sun, Falling, A Cruel Madness—praised by the likes of P. D. James,...
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SOURCE: Skube, Michael. “The Silence of Siberia.” Atlanta Journal Constitution (7 May 2000): L14.
[In the following review, Skube offers a brief overview of Thubron's career and discusses In Siberia.]
The image had haunted him, even as a schoolboy.
Pale green on the map that covered the classroom wall, distorted by Mercator's projection, Russia sprawled across 11 time zones and two continents.
“I'd been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember,” Colin Thubron wrote 20 years ago. “Where other nations—Japan, Brazil, India—clamored with imagined scents and colors, Russia gave out only silence.”
Nowhere was Russia more mysterious than in the emptiness known as Siberia. Taiga and tundra stretched for thousands of miles to the Pacific with only the barest hints of human habitation. It was Russia's Elsewhere, a void into which people vanished without a trace. Yet it was also a kind of spiritual preserve. Larger than the United States and Western Europe combined, Siberia was the eternal Russia, untainted by contact with the West.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, foreigners could visit only five towns along the Trans-Siberian Railway, and then only under supervision. “Siberia itself,” Thubron says, “receded into rumor.”
In the late summer of 1997, Thubron...
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SOURCE: Downing, Ben. Review of In Siberia, by Colin Thubron. New Criterion 18, no. 10 (June 2000): 82-4.
[In the following review, Downing argues that In Siberia is an inferior sequel to Thubron's Among the Russians.]
Rudolph, Dasher, Blitzen, and the rest don't come around Potalovo much anymore. The village, located north of the Arctic Circle, was bullied into restyling itself as a reindeer collective in Krushchev's day, but since then the animals' pastures have been killed off by acid rain.
Near Vladivostok, a woman complains that, of the salary owed her husband the previous year, one-half of it went ignored altogether and the other was paid in glass: “Some customers,” she explains, “had paid the firm in sheer glass, so it was just passed on to the employees.”
The above are but two of the dispatches and vignettes, so grotesque as to be half-comical, with which Colin Thubron peppers his new travelogue, [In Siberia,] the latest—and presumably the last—in a series that began in 1983 with Among the Russians (published here as Where Nights Are Longest) and continued in 1994 with The Lost Heart of Asia. Thubron journeyed through Siberia in order, as he puts it, “for a moment to witness its passage through the wreckage of Communism,” and a pretty sight it wasn't. The poisoned rivers, the jerrybuilt apartment blocks...
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SOURCE: Thubron, Colin, and Nicholas Wroe. “Don't Forget Your Toothbrush: A Life in Writing.” Guardian (23 September 2000): 11.
[In the following interview, Thubron discusses his body of work and his career as a travel writer.]
According to travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron, the publishing industry made an exciting discovery in the mid-1970s. “They realised that travel writing could also be literature,” he says, “which was of course very fortunate for my generation. Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban and myself were hyper-praised for a while. All that has now slightly faded, but I do think that travel writing is still in a healthy state.”
One of the key reasons the genre has remained so strong is that Thubron has continued to write travel books. He has published nine in all, as well as six novels. The latest book, In Siberia, gives a lyrical and learned account of this vast and mysterious region, and has again been praised as much for Thubron's literary talents as for his intrepid journeying to impenetrable locations. Looking at his CV, it seems he was always destined to marry a “natural love of words” with nomadic instincts. As the son of a soldier/diplomat, he travelled all over the world to meet up with his family during school holidays from Eton. He also has a literary pedigree, being a distant relative of the 17th-century poet laureate John...
(The entire section is 976 words.)
SOURCE: de Falbe, John. “Haunted by the Incas.” Spectator 289, no. 9075 (13 July 2002): 39.
[In the following positive review, de Falbe praises the “marvellous vividness” of To the Last City.]
Colin Thubron's reputation as a travel writer is so high (and deservedly so) that his novels often get forgotten in discussions of his work. This is a shame because they are extremely good, and because the two bodies of work illuminate one another. To the Last City, Thubron's new novel, is a characteristically delicate, artful construction, which has at its core an interior journey that is signalled firmly in the opening sentences:
As they descended towards the ravine, the mountains rose to meet them. They were entering a solitude deeper than any they had imagined.
Set in the heart of the eastern Andes, a ‘very hard country’ according to the mestizo guide, the book describes five Europeans on a fortnight's trek to the Incas' last city, Vilcabamba. Robert, a middle-aged journalist, is the only one of the group with some knowledge of the Incas, but he is troubled by their lack of writing. He regards this absence as a mystery to be solved, understood, possessed. ‘The need to find meanings, finding no outlet in words, had expressed itself—he was quite sure—somewhere else.’ Convinced that the trip to Vilcabamba, where the...
(The entire section is 708 words.)
SOURCE: Skidelsky, William. “Novel Thoughts.” New Statesman 131, no. 4598 (29 July 2002): 39.
[In the following review, Skidelsky offers a mixed assessment of To the Last City, comparing it to Phillip Marsden's The Main Cages and Yann Martel's Life of Pi.]
In an interview a few years ago, Julian Barnes explained why it had taken him eight years to complete his semi-autobiographical first novel, Metroland. For too long, he felt constrained by the facts of his own life as they had happened. Even though he was writing a novel, he still didn't feel entirely free to invent. Only on realising that the truth was his to embellish had the novel finally taken shape. So plausibly rendered were Barnes's inventions, in fact, that several French journalists wrongly assumed that a scene in the novel, in which the protagonist loses his virginity in Paris, was true.
This summer three novels about travel are published which succeed or fail, to a large extent, on the freedom that their authors grant to their imaginations. Colin Thubron's To the Last City tells the story of a group of Europeans who travel to the “lost city” of Vilcabamba, the last Inca outpost against the conquistadors, which has been subsumed by jungle for 400 years. For the most part, it is an elegant fable. Thubron adroitly examines the confused motives of those undertaking the trek, including...
(The entire section is 815 words.)
Abel, Betty. Review of Falling, by Colin Thubron. Contemporary Review 256, no. 1492 (May 1990): 274.
Abel praises the emotional suspense that Thubron evokes in Falling.
Carver, Robert “Travels with My Art.” New Statesman and Society 123, no. 4206 (14 October 1994): 48.
Carver compliments The Lost Heart of Asia as “a masterpiece of travel-writing.”
Duguid, Paul. “Journey's End.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5179 (5 July 2002): 21.
Duguid evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of To the Last City.
Review of Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron. Economist 308, no. 7560 (23 July 1988): 77-8.
The critic compares Thubron's Behind the Wall to Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster.
Hanbury-Tenison, Robin. “A Very Strange Stranger.” Spectator 259, no. 8305 (19 September 1987): 44.
Hanbury-Tenison argues that Behind the Wall delves deeper into Chinese society than many previous travel narratives.
Marsden, Philip. “Journey to the Waste Land.” Sunday Times (26 September 1999): 4.
Marsden lauds Thubron's ability to immerse himself in his subject in In Siberia.
(The entire section is 256 words.)