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

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high