Tuesday Book: The sublime and the ridiculous

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The Independent Culture


PUT A man and a woman together in the front seats of a car and what do you get? Humour, perhaps; passion, possibly. Squabbling over driving techniques ("clutch!") and prickly silence, inevitably. Add the challenge of completing a 16,000-kilometre route from Peking to Paris under strict time conditions, over a two-month period, and the stress of danger, illness and mechanical failure. What have you got? A compelling narrative, for a start.

When fiftysomething blockbuster novelist Rosie Thomas is sent a note by the young tour guide who helped her to climb Everest, suggesting they enter the anniversary rally of the 1907 Peking to Paris run, she is tempted to accept. And she does, leaving behind, with more than a twinge of guilt, a long-suffering husband and two kids. This book is the catalogue, and fruit, of the pair's adventures.

And what adventures. Thomas is blessed with a gripping plot, but her gifts as a writer are both proven and stretched. She confronts honestly and affably her own limitations, plucking insight, hope and humour from the depressing scenarios along the way. The trip is littered with potholes, literal and metaphorical. But in the end, the awkward but affectionate partnership at the centre of the enterprise keeps the reader hooked.

Often irritable and self-righteous, Thomas makes no attempt to hide the difficult relationship between herself and her driver, Phil Bowen. Thomas foots the sizeable bills for the car, rally fees and accommodation. Bowen provides the mechanical and motoring expertise but, after some ripe exchanges, she concedes she is better off as navigator than co-driver. This tension is as crucial to the story as the engine of the trusty Volvo which chugs on through China and Tibet towards western Europe.

Difficulties on the road magnify the emotions and idiosyncrasies of the rallyists driving the 98 cars which set out from Peking. Disagreements vie with unexpected moments of warmth, during nights downing beer in seedy towns or fixing recalcitrant car parts.

Problems start well before the rally begins. Visa applications for Beijing are held up because Thomas describes herself as a writer. Cue a wave of last-minute calls and a plea to the Chinese embassy from none other than Sir Edward Heath. Just in time, the visa arrives.

Equipped with the warmest sleeping bag money can buy - a tip passed on by the mountaineer Rebecca Stephens - Thomas and Bowen are soon on their way. Their exchanges, both verbatim and implied, are a delight for anyone intrigued by the politics of gender and age. Thomas, angered by the chauvinist approach of rally organisers and insecure about her lack of knowledge, is aware she fits neither into the flirtatious younger group nor the more genteel procession of couples who motor on steadily. Her writer's view is also challenged: "The demanding immediacy of it all... left me unwilling and almost unable to stockpile and analyse and discard."

There are some hilarious moments. The author develops a personal problem - peri-menopausal bleeding - which creates havoc. She cannot get the requisite medicine, and when she stops in Lhasa to stock up on sanitary supplies, she finds herself having to act out a "surreal parlour game" to a huddle of mystified shop assistants. "The tiny women blinked up at the huge Westerner who was jabbing a finger at her private parts. The first one began to giggle, and then the next, and then a wave of mirth engulfed the shop."

The journey is packed with comic juxtapositions, but Thomas's reflections make the account deeper and more absorbing. When she and Bowen come across a road accident in which several Tibetans are injured, she is forced to admit, in hindsight: "There was an imperviousness about this collective dash across the world... there was never time to look properly, or reflect, or to linger and learn more." She is, perhaps naively, shocked by an organiser's assessment, after the deaths of two drivers, that "This is rallying... I'm afraid people do get killed."

But she realises, cut off from family ties and home comforts, what these mean to her. Reflecting on her ageing body, for instance, she notes: "The almost 20 years that I had ahead of Phil and the others hadn't been stolen from me, nor were they empty. They were prizes that we had won, and their past tense made them invulnerable."

By the time the convoy of cars, battered and bruised, makes it to Paris, there is a sense of triumph, but also of melancholy. The trip has changed Thomas, but it is time to disengage. "It had been ridiculous, but also in a way sublime," she concludes. It is a measure of the success of this book that the reader is very nearly as reluctant to turn the last page.