Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country

| July 12, 2009 | 11 Comments

bryson Bill Brysons In A Sunburned Country

In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Broadway pp352

As his publisher, Random House, is fond of saying: “Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door memorable travel literature threatens to break out”.

Bryson is a decent travel writer but a better humorist; several times through Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country I was moved to laugh out loud. Once, on the commuter train into Toronto on my way to work, a woman was so stirred by my sustained smile she inquired after what book I was reading. Bryson’s at this best when relating a wry anecdote—that’s when his timing and pacing suit him well and he’s as entertaining as hell.

It doesn’t hurt that Australia plays the not-so-straight man to Bryson’s flippant turns of phrase. Remarkably friendly inhabitants, enigmatic aboriginals, extreme weather and peculiar and lethal wildlife all serve as excellent subjects for Bryson’s quick wit.

Bill Bryson is the anti–Paul Theroux. Like Theroux, he’s the kind of writer that makes you feel like you’re riding shotgun, and manages to evoke a real sense of your inclusion in the scene, drawing out the colours, scents and sounds of a particular location. Unlike Theroux, however, he’s not nearly as self-indulgent. And that’s a good thing.

sydney Bill Brysons In A Sunburned Country

Beautiful Syndey Harbour. Photo by Michael McDonough.

Bryson, for example, would never dare to write an account of his eavesdropping on a group of tourists as they discuss one of his classic books. What Bryson can do, however, is turn a 500 km solo ride through barren outback into a side-splitting affair as he relates the banter of commentators discussing a cricket match, a sport he likens to watching a slow-motion tea party.

The only criticism I can level is that the book is rather devoid of Australians. Sure, it’s full of Australia, but where are the people with names and narratives of their own? If we were to believe Bryson’s account of Australia, the continent is mainly peopled with bored service staff who work for mediocre but somewhat overpriced hotels.

The end result is that Bryson does a great job about relating his travels trough Australia. Ultimately, however, this is more a book about Bryson than by Bryson. It is only secondly a book about a vast and wonderful continent. Sadly, there was great opportunity in this book to discover a deeper, more compelling narrative, but it’s an opportunity lost to an otherwise gifted writer.

Unfortunately—and ultimately—Bryson falls victim to the same criticisms I direct at Theroux. I want my travel writers to be vivid characters with strong identities, but I want them to realize that they have a job to do—serving as a surrogate traveller, and letting us travel by proxy.

That being said, this book is well-paced, entertaining, and chock full of interesting trivia about the continent. Laugh-out loud moments abound, and I would recommend the book. I found myself wishing, however, that the narrative aspired to something more or served a greater purpose.

I’ll take what I can get, though!


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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Check him out on Google+.

Comments (11)

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  1. Jen Laceda says:


    …and this may be the reason why I have read Bryson, but not Theroux. Theroux is on my shelf, though. I’m gonna get to him. So many travel lit to read out there!

    • Daniel says:


      I probably give Theroux too hard a time about that aspect of his writing. To be honest, it was his unapologetic eye that reinvigorated the whole travel writing genre. I also read his books ravenously, so who knows!

  2. Jen Laceda says:


    Which of Theroux’s books is/are your favourite(s)?

    • Daniel says:


      ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’ is my favourite; but I haven’t read his complete bibliography. ‘Dark Star Safari’ comes in a close second. I would recommend the former, over the latter. However, that might have something to do with the fact that I’ve been to China, but haven’t yet been to Africa. Which one of Theroux’s books is on your shelf?

  3. Victoria says:


    I took Bryson to Australia with me…I read it before I got off the plane it was that funny, although I never really felt like he was a ‘true’ backpacker. Anyway I left it on the plane so hopefully someone else got to experience his great writing!

    • Daniel says:


      True, Victoria—neither Theroux nor Bryson are ‘backpackers’ in the true sense of the word. The former sometimes criticizes them and the latter views them as somewhat of a curiosity. Guess we’ll have to read Rolf Potts and the like to get a true sense of what ‘backpackers’ are up to. Thanks for dropping by. Appreciate the comment!

  4. Dave and Deb says:


    I loved that book, my favorite part was the Cricket Match. I laughed out loud as he described listening to it. And the rules of the game.

  5. Greg says:


    Amazing, I haven’t thought about Theroux in years. I read Mosquito Coast about 20 yrs ago and found it somewhat depressing as I remember. I also just realized that I still have Fong and the Indians and Saint Jack, and haven’t gotten around to reading them yet.

  6. Jill says:


    He’s my favorite travel author… check out his “A Walk In The Woods” for a laugh out loud story of his journey in the Appalachian trail.


  7. I credit Bryson’s book on Australia to cementing my desire to visit Australia. And when I moved to Chile, I flew across the south Pacific four times to visit my friends in Sydney and Melbourne. On this upcoming RTW in 2012, I’m planning to visit those two great cities again, as well as friends in Adelaide, Perth, and possibly Canberra.

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