Reading Down Under

Down Under by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson has always been one of my favorite authors for non fiction and if you ever see one of his books I urge you to read it. So you can imagine my joy at discovering that he has done a book about his journeys in Australia, which I saw in a second hand book store. I bought it immediately, gave it to my partner as a Christmas present, then stole it immediately to read.

The book covers three different trips to Australia, one that involves a train journey from Sydney to Perth, one on a road trip of the “Boomerang Coast” and a final journey from Darwin to Perth. All of these are conveyed like you’re listening to a fascinating uncle regaling stories, with hundreds of interesting facts to boot.

Bryson covers areas of Australia that many locals wouldn’t even think about; he talks about Australia’s strange anonymity in the rest of the world, it’s forgotten achievements, he talks candidly about how the country was founded and populated and he spends many pages describing things that can now kill me in pretty horrible ways.

Not to say that Brysons can only be enjoyed if you are NOT a native to Australia. All countries have interesting nooks of information that are not covered on the standard, patriotic history guides and “Down Under” covers many stories that I’m sure would have any Australian gaping or laughing in surprise. I do get a sense at times that this book was primarily aimed at an American audience. Twice Bryson refers to the American people as “us” but other than this I found myself totally at ease with Bryson’s wonderful style of story telling.

The book is full of statistics and facts about Australia that really do beggar belief and I will certainly be repeating to my family back in the UK. Australia’s distinct wildlife (the wasp-ant being my favorite story in this vein) and the jaw-dropping finds that have been made in this country really are a pleasure to read through the eyes of such an enthusiast as Bill Bryson.

This book also touches upon a topic that I have found difficult in this country to raise: Why are there so few Aboriginals? Bryson candidly speaks upon the difficulties that Australia faces trying to give the native people a better lease of life after hundreds of years of inhuman treatment, culminating in the Stolen Generation. Throughout his narrative he calls the Aboriginals the “invisible people”, a fact that is startlingly true throughout the world, and also talks with evident amazement on their link to the past, the impossibility of them finding themselves on Australia, and their culture.

Of course, his topics on them are brief, his journeys taking precedence in the narrative, so i would not recommend this as a full account of Australian history. This book is enjoyable to the extreme, light hearted and full of knowledge. It has wet my appetite to learn more about this country and I think Bryson would be overjoyed to know that it had such an effect.

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