This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I found it entertaining, engaging, engrossing, and generally excellent (I guess it’s a 4-E book!).
One of my few regrets in life is that I didn’t spend more time travelling when I was young and relatively free of responsibilities. The two weeks my friend Kirsten and I spent backpacking in Europe the summer I was 21 gave me a tiny taste of that wonderful world of young-adult backpackers wandering the globe. I have always wished I’d gone back for me rather than limiting myself to that one cautious taste. (If you haven’t read my essay about getting kicked off a train in Yugoslavia at midnight, read it here — if you’ll permit a slight tangent from raving about Gilman’s story)
Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Claire were bolder than I was. They went for the full-on, spend-a-year-backpacking around the world experience. Their trip, like mine, took place in the late 80s, but instead of starting in the relatively safe world of Europe with its network of Eurail passes and hostels, they went straight to communist China, which at that time was barely open to visitors from the West.
Gilman is a hilarious writer, and there’s plenty of funny here, but there’s also plenty of drama as she and Claire suffer real and serious hardships on their trek through China. Anyone who’s done even a little backpacker travel knows how quickly friendships can fray and you can start to question the sanity and goodwill of the person you’re travelling with. Gilman portrays very convincingly how the stress of travel and the high drama of being 21 managed to obscure the fact that her friend Claire was not, in fact, just high-strung and stressed-out, but on the brink of a full-on mental collapse. When the collapse happens, comedy quickly turns to high drama, with Susan and Claire on the run out of China (with a Canadian who appears on the scene to save the day — yay!!).
It’s a page-turning, enjoyable, sometimes heart-wrenching read, delivered in trademark Gilman style. My only regret was that the story ended after seven hair-raising weeks in China — I would gladly have read about Gilman’s adventures on a complete round-the-world tour. It would be the next best thing to having done it myself.