Book Review: ‘Down Under’ by Bill Bryson

I have been a huge fan of the travel writer Bill Bryson since an unusually young age, first devouring ‘A Walk in the Woods’ (an account of his journey along the Appalachian Trail) at the age of fourteen. His dry wit, uncanny observations, and unique ability to make the most mundane morsels of information immensely fascinating, is something I continue to enjoy to this day.

In his almost 30-year-long career, Bryson has embarked on countless travels throughout his native America, across Europe, and around Great Britain, dissecting each country and its characteristics with spirit and humour. However, one of my favourite of his books continues to be his journey to Australia, where he explores its people, cities, coastlines, and the infamous Outback with all the intense curiosity expected of a foreigner relatively unacquainted with the country. Bryson proves positively intrigued by everything from the deadliness of Australia’s wildlife, to the mind-bogglingly remote location of Outback towns, to the seemingly bizarre decision to make Canberra its capital city. Thus, the reader is offered a rich and laugh-out-loud education in the Australian way of life, in the form of a page-turning outsider’s insight into the world’s sixth largest country.

‘Down Under’ by Bill Bryson (source: images.gr-assets.com)

Beginning with a witty deliberation on why the rest of the world knows so little about its neighbours down under (including who the Prime Minister is), Bryson sets about finding the answers himself. Traversing a number of different routes which cover a vast expanse of this incredible country, Bryson invites the reader on a journey to learn more about ‘the driest, flattest, hottest, most infertile and climatically aggressive of all the inhabited continents’, because ‘trust me’, he says, ‘it’s interesting’.

Throughout the book we follow his travels from Sydney to Perth, Darwin to Alice Springs, where he treats us to wonderfully honest reviews about what he finds — praising what genuinely captivates him, but never one to mince words if he finds something mind-numbingly boring. Yet what truly makes Bryson’s book such a gripping read is that his roaming from A to B is interwoven with intriguing nuggets of history, belly-achingly funny anecdotes, and a keen eye for picking up on the quirks of the Australian people.

Bill Bryson (source: farm4.staticflickr.com)

On finishing ‘Down Under’ expect to be left feeling both as if you accompanied Bryson on the trip, and aching to explore Australia for yourself. True to Bryson’s word, we learn that Australia really is interesting (even if its Prime Minister isn’t). And of course, as with every Bryson novel, we are also left itching to go down to the bookshop to buy another one of his honest and guffaw-inducing accounts of a nation and its people.

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