Acclaimed fiction writer Banks (A Permanent Member of the Family, 2013, etc.) turns an able hand to nonfiction in this expansive, elegiac reflection on the pleasures and deceptions of travel.
The 75-year-old author recognizes the failings of narratives based solely on fading, self-serving memories, yet he cannot resist indulging in recollections from 30 years ago. “A memoir is like a travel book,” he writes. “Whether short or long it's a radical reduction of remembered reality and is structured as much by what it leaves out as what it puts in.” In the lengthy title essay, set in 1988, Banks and his soon-to-be-fourth wife embark on a wide-ranging odyssey of the Caribbean, one that wakens many ghosts (of wives and adventures past) while conjuring encouragement and despair in equal measure. The author loves the Caribbean and its people but loathes what is happening to the islands to accommodate, then as now, ever increasing hordes of cruise-ship and package-tour visitors, to homogenize distinctive cultures, and to obscure the real history of slavery. Resolution was a principal reason that Banks, who lived for a time in Jamaica, undertook this return journey to the tropics. Written in 2015, the piece is at least as much about Banks' courtship narrative, his personal history, and his regrets as it is about an enviable assignment in the Caribbean. But the frequent self-flagellation occasionally feels excessive. The other essays in the book are less melancholy, offering observations and insights that, despite their ages, seem timeless. After all, the point of travel is knowledge, not topical information. Of the more “conventional” travel pieces here, the most resonant and vivid are those on the Everglades and the author’s mountaineering in South America and the Himalayas, the last at age 72.
Banks' ecological warnings might strike even the most fervent environmentalist as rather apocalyptic, yet in the best of these pieces, his clarity of vision and muscular prose are as transporting as a mountain ascent.