Books: The sea and the mirror

A travel writer is not just a bold venturer, but a rat who deserts nearest and dearest. So what happens when the voyager comes home to find that his own marriage has gone west?

Passage to Juneau: a sea and its meanings

by Jonathan Raban

Picador, pounds 16.99, 435pp

I have never really understood anybody who is a convinced homebody. Isn't home nothing more than a internal cul-de-sac of your own making? A heavily mortgaged encumbrance that curtails your horizons and burdens you with the minutiae of domestic life?

To any addicted traveller, the idea of "home" is an endlessly tangled internal argument. Home serves as the source of your personal stability. It forces you to face the importance of individual accountability. It makes you engage with the complicating pleasures of family life. But it's always something you rebel against.

No wonder, therefore, that the literature of travel is all about the need to run away; to flee the shackles of responsibility and the metronomic regularity of day-to-day existence. Yet every chronicled journey (from Homer onwards) is also bound up in the notion of returning - of longing for that which you fled. In this sense, travel is an articulation of one of life's bigger conundrums: the elusiveness of contentment.

As Jonathan Raban notes in his remarkable new book, "travelling always entails infidelity. You do your best to mask the feeling of sly triumph that comes with turning your back on home and all it stands for; but disappearing into the crowd in the departure lounge, or stowing your bags in the car at dawn, you know you're a rat." Raban himself is, of course, "something of an experienced deserter" when it comes to lighting out into the geographic void. More tellingly, he is (for my money) one of the key writers of the past three decades - not only for his immense stylistic showmanship, but also for the way he has taken that amorphous genre called "travel writing" and utterly redefined its frontiers.

Whether it be tackling the inauguration of his middle age on a voyage down the Mississippi (Old Glory), attempting to assess the foreignness of his own homeland (Coasting), or delving into the American need for personal reinvention (Hunting Mr Heartbreak), Raban has always managed to turn his books into crafty sleight-of-hand endeavours. He layers them with on-the-road narrative, historical and literary analogies, not to mention a judicious dose of confessional-box revelations.

To him, the travel book is not simply a fiction-that-happened (a narrative re-imagining a journey), but also a conduit through which he can grapple with larger questions of personal identity, the pleasures and perils of rootlessness, and our ongoing inability to find that berth marked home.

Passage to Juneau is his finest achievement to date. Ostensibly an account of a voyage Raban took from his new home in Seattle to the Alaskan capital through that labyrinthine sea route called the Inside Passage, it is, in essence, a book about the nature of loss. Setting sail in his boat, Raban senses that he is tempting domestic fate by leaving his four-year- old daughter and his American wife (a marriage which, he hints, has developed some small, telltale fissures).

The passage north affords him the opportunity to parallel his own journey with that made during 1792 by that most arrogant and insecure of explorers, George Vancouver (Raban's recounting of Vancouver's appalling exploits on the Discovery is one of the book's many pleasures). It also gives him plenty of scope for his formidable skills as an assessor of human and natural topography. His barbed account of having his boat turned upside down by a pair of officious Canadian customs officers leads him into a brilliant riff on the curious nature of Canadian-ness - and how, if Americans are Oedipal in temperament, then Canadians are forever playing the role of Telemachus: the loyal son in search of his lost father.

Intriguingly, this voyage north also finds Raban cast into the role of an expatriate Telemachus, when news comes from England that his vicar father is dying of cancer. The journey on the Inside Passage suddenly becomes one into a different sort of Inside Passage. Raban returns home not only to confront parental mortality, but his own sense of separateness both from his family and his native land. Indeed, Raban is virtuosic when it comes to casting a melancholic eye on this island's inherent smallness.

After his father's death, he returns to sea, pushing north to Alaska. His wife and child are due to meet him when he docks at Juneau. The rendezvous happens - but it is not a happy one, as his wife appears strained and tense. They bring their daughter to a playground. As she climbs a slide, Raban tentatively asks his wife what's preoccupying her: "I wanted to talk about separating. Like, I wondered if you've ever thought of separating?" At which point, Raban's stomach goes south.

This harrowing description of marital disintegration only lasts for around seven pages. But it is so stunningly rendered (in terse, exacting language) that it cuts deep into your mind and refuses to vanish. Reading it is the emotional equivalent of stepping into an empty lift shaft, as Raban recounts what it's like to experience that moment when one's life suddenly goes into freefall.

On his solo journey back to Seattle, Raban delves into a battered Penguin edition of Marcus Aurelius (once owned by his father), and stumbles upon a telling passage: "Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight." Loss, of course, is at the heart of all journeys - because loss is what we must constantly confront as we travel through our own narrative. When Raban docks in Seattle, he hoists a duffle bag and - seeing his house in the distance - knows he's about to face a far rougher sea.

You close this extraordinary book marvelling at this most distressing, but commonplace of ironies. He's home, but he's lost. Just like the rest of us.

Douglas Kennedy's latest novel `The Job', is published by Little, Brown

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried