Never ever have I chafed as much against space constraints while reviewing a book. A feast of anecdotes and experiences, writer-publisher Ritu Menons travelogue has the charming spontaneity of a real diary, but an impulsiveness too, that surfaces in the odd oversight her allusions to Siem Riep, for instance, despite her extensive exploration of Cambodias archaeological prideAngkor Wat and its outlying temples, and her baffling reference to Wordsworths famous ode, on which, moreover, she had written umpteen college tutorials as Intimations of Mortality. Also, for someone who marvels at the enigma of beliefits strength and its power in Borobudur, Indonesia, she appears curiously unattuned to what Yangons Shwedagon Pagoda symbolises for Burmese people living in a restrictive political environment, dismissing it as a monument to materiality.
Yet, Menon can be irresistibly persuasive. How easily she converted me to her views on Egypt and Cambodia, countries I had found underwhelming, and had me yearning for destinations (Bethlehem, for one) I had never considered visiting Is it because of the candour and enthusiasm that lend her narratives a rare effervescence or her way with words which sometimes transforms her prose into poetry It could well be the range and thoroughness of her research into her particular areas of interest (history, art, architecture, literature, religion, politics) her ability to capture the essence of people and places her pitch-perfect ear for local intonations and accents (Madaam, one guide book, five dollaa. in Cambodia) her mouthwatering descriptions of delicacies that can make you dizzy with hunger or the innate humanity that drives her activism.
I did wonder at the books seemingly random sequence of chapters, then realised how each narrativethe one on a pre-Islamic State Syria is especially poignantfed off the previous ones intensity, the crescendo reaching its climax in Palestine Grace under Repression, a heartrending account of the systematic disempowerment of a people. Serving as a counterpoint to whats gone before and affording a gentle release from the steadily built-up tension are the final chapters on Sicily, Frances wine country and Englands gardens and lakes and grey, drippy, pissing wet rain. It proves that despite the occasional fumble, Menons instincts as a writer are sharp, and underlying her endearingly informal way of involving you in her journeys are a keen mind and extraordinary depth of feeling.