Martine's Reviews > Down Under

Down Under by Bill Bryson
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May 26, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: history, non-fiction, travel-writing
Read in May, 2008

I developed a taste for Bill Bryson last year when I read his Short History of Nearly Everything, an ambitious attempt to trace the history of life, the universe and everything in just 574 pages. While many of the scientific discoveries outlined in the book were a little beyond me, I thoroughly enjoyed Bryson's descriptions of the larger-than-life personalities behind the discoveries, which really brought the science described to life. So when I found out that he had also written a travelogue of a journey across the country I may soon call home -- Australia -- I simply had to read it.

Australia, for those of you who have never been there, is one of the most colourful places on earth. It has a history so bizarre that it makes China's seem normal by comparison. It has insane expanses of the most arid desert imaginable, as well as some of the world's most beautiful beaches, where unfortunately you can't swim due to the prevalence of sharks, crocs, box jellyfish, stingrays and murderous rip currents. It houses beyond a shadow of a doubt the world's most interesting flora and fauna, including twelve-foot earthworms and living fossils. (And you thought kangaroos were exotic. Ha.) And if all that weren't interesting enough, the locals are slightly mad. They eat meat pies floating in pea soup, are crazy about cricket and consider shorts and knee-length socks proper attire for middle-aged bus drivers. In short, it's a unique place and I love it. I look forward to moving there in a few months' time.

Bill Bryson also loves Australia, and it shows. While he likes to remind his readers of the country's amazing collection of deathly animals (over and over again) and poke fun at the locals and their weird habits, his affection for the place shines through in every chapter, and it's quite infectious. By describing his own travels and those of early settlers, explorers and naturalists, he provides the reader with an appreciation for how vast and unwelcoming the country is, and how utterly unique. He provides background information on events of which few non-Australians will have heard (such as the fact that a nuclear bomb may have been detonated in the outback without anyone noticing, and that an Australian Prime Minister once vanished, never to be seen again), waxes lyrical on trees and animals so bizarre that you'll want to hop on the first plane to Australia to check them out for yourself (again, kangaroos are only the beginning), explains why you should go and see Ayers Rock even if you've already seen hundreds of photos of it, and intersperses all this useful information with a winning combination of self-deprecating humour, bizarre anecdotes, absurd dialogue and entertaining accounts of encounters with fellow travellers and locals. The resulting book is not only completely recognisable to anyone who has visited Australia, but hugely appealing to anyone who hasn't. I doubt anyone can read this book without wishing to book a flight to Oz immediately afterwards.

If I have any complaint about Down Under, it is that there is too little of it. While Bryson's writing is entertaining and informative, his choice of places to visit and describe seems rather random and limited. I wish he had done more travelling, gone further into the interior of the country and left all traces of luxury behind him for a while, so as to emulate the pioneers and explorers whose exploits he relates with such gusto. I also think the book would have benefited from slightly more rigorous editing, as parts of it seem rather hastily written. For all its small flaws, though, Down Under (released in the US as In a Sunburned Country) is a fascinating read which has whetted my appetite for more Bryson travelogues. And for a return to Oz, but that's another story.
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04/08 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Who was the disappearing Prime Minister? I have to know!


Martine Howard Holt, who disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach near Portsea in 1967, and was presumed drowned. Probably the only Prime Minister in modern history to go MIA while in office.


message 3: by Belinda (new) - added it

Belinda G HAROLD Holt was the Prime Minister that went missing!
If Bill Bryson tried to be like the early explorers and wandered around the outback for a while, he would have died... This country doesn't take kindly to people out of their vehicles =)
I live in Australia, but I'm stil going to read this! I love my country!!


message 4: by Rach (new)

Rach omg when we were naming prime ministers the ther day and i cant believe i forgot Harold Holt!


Jennifer As you now live in Brisbane, I'm sure you know that Australians can, in fact - and frequently do - swim in our oceans, despite the presence of said fauna.


message 6: by Ted (last edited Aug 08, 2015 03:31PM) (new)

Ted A few of Bryson's views mentioned in the review struck me as a little off-track, or over the top (as the "no swimming" one mentioned by Jennifer).

But I do like Bryson's writing, and this review, is great. It sounds like a fun book, and I'm sure that I would learn lots of new stuff (and be reminded of even more).


message 7: by Jennifer (last edited Aug 09, 2015 08:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jennifer Ted, it's definitely a fun book, and I certainly recommend it. I read it a few years ago, and although I might be mistaken, I don't recall Bryson himself saying anything about not being able to swim due to the marine life. The quote I believe Martine might be making reference to is this one: "If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback." He is, of course, being sardonic, as Bryson tends to do. There's no actual assertion that you can't swim in the sea (although Bryson himself probably might refrain). In fact, he makes it a point to dispel the 'murderous wildlife' myth to a degree.


message 8: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Mcintyre My sister recommended this author to to me but when I read a few pages of one of his books it didn't grab me, however like you I have developed a taste for Bill Bryson after reading 'Notes from a Small Island' and laughing like an idiot when he writes ' The cafe was outstanding.......afterwards I felt like a new man. I emerged with a toothpick and a burp.' I will be looking for more of his books from now on.


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