Like Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban is best known as a travel writer. Old Glory: An American Voyage (1981) was Raban’s fascinating account of piloting a sixteen-foot outboard down Huck Finn’s Mississippi. Even more than William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1983), popular at about the same time, Old Glory was a journey into America’s heartland that exposed both its beauty and its hatreds. Raban’s Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth (1979) is one of the best accounts of that exotic region for prospective visitors.
Like Theroux, Raban is also a novelist, and his skills as a travel writer—keen observation, sensitivity to the details of weather and transportation, the ability to draw ideas from locales—carry over almost intact into his first novel. The background to Foreign Land, the feeling for both land and sea, is one of the strongest aspects of this contemporary English morality tale.
The novel certainly calls on Raban’s vast travel experience. George Grey, the protagonist, a former British naval officer, has run a “bunkering” (refueling) station on the coast of a former Portuguese colony, now the (fictitious) Marxist West African state of Montedor. George has lived for some years in Montedor’s “easygoing, festive” capital of Bom Porto and has even shared the attentions of Vera, the mistress of Montedor’s minister of communications. Life in Montedor has been good, but now George is retiring home to England (and bringing with him a rather large bundle of money earned by looking the other way during Montedor’s bloody war of independence a few years before).
Part of George’s motivation for returning to England is to settle accounts with his past, with his parents, now dead, and with his estranged daughter. He moves into “Thalassa,” the cottage his parents have left him in the tiny Cornwall seaport of St. Cadix: “He wanted to find England.It was England, not Africa, that was so far away.” St. Cadix, however, turns out to be an awful place, full of stuffy, provincial, half-dead retirees. Only Diana Pym, a former singer (“Julie Midnight”) whose main occupation now is cultivating a “wild place” of a garden, brings any life to the town.
George’s main reason for returning to England is to seek reconciliation with his daughter, Sheila, a feminist writer now thirty-seven years old. In flashbacks, Raban describes the naïve, gullible World War II naval officer who fell in love with Angela Haigh for her wealth and her sexual experience. After their wedding, George took a post in Aden that his father-in-law had found for him, and he and his pregnant wife settled into the colonial West African world. It was not a very happy life: Angela loved the company of young men, and everyone found George boring. George lived for his daughter, Sheila, but when Angela finally provoked him through her infidelities to hit her, she fled Africa for England and took Sheila with her. In the years since that split, relations between George and Sheila have been distant and strained.
Both father and daughter look forward nervously to this reunion; Sheila has “waited years to make a reckoning” with George. Their one evening together, however, is a disaster: Sheila, pregnant with her lover Tom’s child, is unable to share her happiness with her father; George drinks too much and talks about everything except what is on his mind. In the end, Tom gives George a beautiful old sextant which he has restored.
“It wasn’t the first time that he’d run away to sea. George was an old hand at this game”—first in the navy to escape his parochial pastor father and then to Africa with his young bride. In St. Cadix, George finds an old ketch and outfits it with his belongings: “He opened one cautious eye on the lamplit saloon, and saw that it was all right—he was home.” The ketch may provide the vessel George needs. “It felt like a bitter lifetime since he’d climbed on to the...
(The entire section is 1653 words.)