The day before we left Ecuador, I finished reading my book. Ordinarily, this would be no big deal. However, given that it meant that I had now finished all five of the books that I had taken with me*, and given that I was about to spend much of the next 24 hours locked away in aeroplanes and airports, this was a disaster. I don't know about you, but having a book to read is a bit like having air to breathe: essential. My parents always joke that I wouldn't leave the house unless I had a book with me. In the age of the iPod, this isn't quite so true as it used to be, but I still can't bear to be without something to read.
In desperation, I went to reception of the hostel we were staying in and had a look at the book exchange. Book exchanges were quite common in this part of the world. The idea is simple: the hostel provides a set of shelves where travellers are able to leave books they have finished, swapping them for a book that someone else has left there. I don't want to cast any aspersions on the people who use these things, but in the main, these books are either Lonely Planet travel guides, or they are by people like John Grisham or Dorothy L Sayers. I have nothing against books like this (hell, I've even read some Grisham), it's just that none of them were really what I was looking for to keep me entertained on a long flight.
Just as I was about to give up and take a chance on Miami airport having a reasonable bookshop, a book caught my eye:
"The English Passengers" by Matthew Kneale.
Apparently it won the Whitbread prize in 2000, so I thought that although it looked a bit worthy, it might prove to be an interesting read.
Oh my. I finished this earlier this evening. It's an absolutely wonderful book.
The blurb on the back describes how the book tells the (fictional) story of an ill-starred expedition led by an English vicar to discover the site of the Garden of Eden in Tasmania. Little does he know that the vessel they have chartered to take them to Australia is actually a Manx smuggling vessel on the run from English customs and with a cargo of contraband brandy, tobacco and French pornography. It sounded amusing and it is in fact very funny in places. What I hadn't realised was that the story is told from multiple perspectives, the most striking of which is a half-caste aborigine called Peevay. Through Peevay's eyes we see the arrival of the first white settlers in Tasmania and we watch the slow and inexorable extinction of his people under the uncaring and callous hands of the English colonisers. Even more damning are the sections of the book that are seen through they eyes of some of those "well meaning" settlers and their casual attitudes towards genocide. I am ashamed to say that I hadn't even realised that there are no original aboriginal people left in Tasmania.
It's a very, very powerful book.
Sarah was telling me the other day how a few of the people she spoke to when she was in South America were lamenting the fact that they had been colonised by the Spanish, and that things would have been so much better if it had been the English.
I urge anyone labouring under that misapprehension to read this book and reconsider.
It's the best book I have read in a long time.
Next up: a collection of Angela Carter's short stories. Either that or some more Bond.
* The list of books that I took to Ecuador:
Ptolemy's Gate - Jonathan Stroud
Casino Royale - Ian Fleming
Live and Let Die - Ian Fleming
Moonraker - Ian Fleming
The Bourne Identity - Robert Ludlum
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