I first read Bill Bryson’s Down Under 1 several years ago. Just about a week ago, however, it occurred to me that I had never actually finished the book. I was on a Bryson glut at the time, and this particular book represented probably the last in a long series that I had checked out from the library. Having grown short on time, I think I simply returned it. What a shame it was. I bought Down Under several years ago at a used bookstore, and immediately brought it down to read it properly.
Bryson is an established—and wonderful—travel writer, and I am used to him jetting around the Midwest, or even Europe, but for this book, he tackles a truly monstrous goal: Australia. It’s a place very near and dear to his heart apparently, and his two tours for this book were far from his first time there.
The book’s format is like most of Bryson’s work, which is to say that it ambulates wherever it wants to. There is some effort taken to organize, however: rather than simply narrate everything as he perceives it, Bryson will sometimes omit a particular landmark or story from the chronological narrative and come back to it later, when it is thematically poignant. However, I find the meandering nature of the book to be just fine—like Bryson, I’m delighted by the anecdotes, histories, and wonderful minutiæ that he manages to dig up about everything. And Australia is full of stories. Bryson’s overarching theme seems to be that Australia is an enormous (literally) paradox, at once explicably hostile (it houses a greater profusion of deadly animals than anywhere in the world, which isn’t even to mention its brutal environment) and full of enormous beauty and life; it is an entire continent and nation unto itself, and yet it almost entirely escapes the notice of the rest of the world. It is populated by an extraordinarily unique people, and by this I’m not only referring to the special temperament of the average Australian, but also to the Aborigines, whose story I won’t bother to relate here, but which upon Bryson expends a considerable amount of astounded verbage.
The book is packed with stories, facts, and tidbits that Bryson either researches, read in one of the various paperbacks he bought at used book stores in Australia, or learned on the way. Sometimes they seem random, but they are generally illustrative of a particular point. To wit: in the late 1960s, Australia’s prime minister (the antipodean analog, as it were, to an American president) was pulled under by a riptide on some beach and never seen again. The incident wasn’t even reported in the New York Times. This says a great deal about how ignorant we are—the entire world is, really—about Australia, even though it’s a relatively contemporary, Western-with-a-capital-W establishment.
Down Under was, unsurprisingly, a joy to read, as you will have likely guessed if you are at all familiar with my torrid literary love affair with Bill Bryson. The man can do no wrong, really. Not only was this book fun to read, but it was actually informative as well, and it will likely be for any of you as well unless you already happen to be familiar with Australia.
- The book was also published as In a Sunburned Country in America, and this was the version I read. I can assure you that the only differences are minor typographic things—e.g. Mr. and Mr—and a brief preface regarding the use of “sunburned” as opposed to “sunburnt.”[↩]