Take the self-deprecating British wit of Bridget Jones’ Diary, combine it with the feisty arrogance and sassy style of Sex and the City, throw in a Vietnamese opium den and an intercontinental love triangle, and you get Backpack, a hilariously insightful page-turner that will keep you hooked throughout the journey.
First-time author Emily Barr brings the male-dominated genre of backpacker fiction to a new level with her creation of Tansy Harris, an overindulgent British journalist who, fed-up with the pressures of London life and the recent death of her alcoholic mother, takes off on a backpacking adventure through Asia, anxious to leave everything else behind. Well, not exactly everything.
Tansy is trapped by the confines of cocaine, a shallow relationship, and an even shallower outlook on life. Her incentive is to come home “skinny and brown…standing around looking lovely and thinking deep thoughts,” but the third world gives her a much-needed slap in the face the second she steps off the plane. Confronted with poverty, crime, and hostility from the natives as well as from pretentious backpackers, she is broken in as an amateur traveler.
Not included on her itinerary is Max, a shaggy, sensitive backpacker who sees past Tansy’s front and helps open her eyes to the possibility of a romance other than the empty relationship back home. Tansy’s inner monologues about her relationships can get enduring, and after a while, one becomes annoyed with the overkill of sentimentality. However, at other points, this conflict does enhance the story.
Soon enough, another subplot emerges from the journey: a serial killer stalking his way through Europe, killing blond British women, essentially Tansy look-alikes. The “clever twist” at the end of this subplot is predictable and does not really add to the meat of the story. One thing worth noting, however, is that there is more to Tansy than meets the eye and the reader will find out she really is a three-dimensional character, making her spiritual journey that much more exciting.
One element that makes Backpack worth reading is the writer’s vivid depiction of Asia. Since the story is based loosely on Barr’s own backpacking experiences originally submitted to the London newspaper she worked for, she can accurately paint a picture of the countries Tansy treks through: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Tibet, and China. The setting itself is enough reason to pick the book up, especially for people who want to learn more about the Asian culture.
Barr’s satirical description of the backpacking culture, as established by Garland with The Beach, depicts backpackers as wealthy, dread-locked, pseudo-intellectual posers who reek of ganja, and impose their Western culture on the East while caring to oberve only the more romanticized aspects of Asia. They jump at the chance to walk around in sandals and wrinkled linen, but in reality, they have the comfort of their credit cards and available technology to bubble-wrap their “adventures.” In the end, the story may sound like Bridget Jones Goes to Thailand, but it evolves into so much more. This is a great read for anyone who suffers from wanderlust and longs for a similar escape.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org