Colin Thubron Essay - Critical Essays

Thubron, Colin


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Olga Semenova (review date 21 October 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

Fitzroy Maclean (review date 7 July 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Sharon Dirlam (review date 6 October 1985)

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”...

(The entire section is 360 words.)

Gail Pool (review date 8 September 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Hilary Mantel (review date 1 October 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 742 words.)

Francis X. Rocca (review date January 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 2242 words.)

John K. Fairbank (review date 16 March 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 1550 words.)

Gloria Bien (review date 1 April 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Karen Gernant (review date May 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

Peter Reading (review date 8 September 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 16 September 1989)

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,...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Stephen Wall (review date 28 September 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

John Gittings (review date 1990-91)

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...

(The entire section is 1371 words.)

Tim Gooderham (review date 6 September 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Neroli Lawson (review date 18 October 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Betty Abel (review date February 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Dervla Murphy (review date 24 September 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

Scott Malcomson (review date 30 September 1994)

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,”...

(The entire section is 993 words.)

Molly Mortimer (review date June 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Bill Peters (review date October 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Anthony Quinn (review date 15 September 1996)

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,...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Oliver Reynolds (review date 20 September 1996)

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,...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

David Montrose (review date 21 September 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

Guy Mannes-Abbott (review date 2 October 1999)

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 entire section is 651 words.)

Nicholas Harman (review date 9 October 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Ian Thomson (review date 9 October 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Colin Thubron and Independent Sunday (interview date 10 October 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 1093 words.)

Matthew Reisz (review date 24 October 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

David Pryce-Jones (review date 20 December 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 1177 words.)

Colin Thubron and Gayle Feldman (interview date 28 February 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 2074 words.)

Michael Skube (review date 7 May 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)

Ben Downing (review date June 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)

Colin Thubron and Nicholas Wroe (interview date 23 September 2000)

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.”...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

John de Falbe (review date 13 July 2002)

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:


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William Skidelsky (review date 29 July 2002)

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...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 256 words.)