Jan Morris’ reputation as a travel writer is up there with Paul Theroux’s. Indeed, the two are friends, and a blurb from Theroux praising Morris’ “serenity” and “strength” appears on the flap of her new book of superficial essays on Canadian cities. The NEW YORK TIMES calls Morris’ writing “pure magic”; the WASHINGTON POST says she brings “artistry to sociology.” This quickie nonbook, a tossing together of pieces commissioned by a Toronto magazine, belies the gushing and lends credence to one’s suspicions that Morris’ standing among literary globetrotters might be a function less of merit than of marketing.
Like a waterbug, Morris skims deftly over surfaces. She is frank about having spent only a few days in each city she discusses; she moves skillfully from the general to the general. Notably infrequent are quotation marks: She gives little solid evidence of having interviewed any live Canadians. Morris asserts her “growing involvement” over several decades with Canada, but fails to demonstrate it. She makes facile comparisons (St. Andrews, New Brunswick, to Key West, Florida), and refers gratuitously (not helpfully or with any real self-examination) to her own attitudes and opinions.
A better book about Canada could have been written, and surely has been. Morris’ slight rendering unfortunately might give the false impression that there is no more to be said about a very interesting country. What justifies the reader’s money and time? O CANADA is by “our best modern travel writer” (CHICAGO TRIBUNE). For this reviewer, that is far from enough.