Book Review: Neither Here Nor There – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of the best-known (and best-selling) travel writers of our time, so it’s actually a little embarrassing to admit that I’ve never read any of his books before. I thought it was about high time I rectified this sorry state of affairs and picked up his third travel memoir, Neither Here Nor There, since it documents a trip to Europe (my favourite destination). I was sorely disappointed.

The narrative describes a solo tour of Europe made in 1990, with frequent flashbacks of trips made in 1972 and 1973 when he was still in college and backpacking with a friend. The aim of the 1990 trip was to try and recreate the route he had followed previously and relive some of the more memorable experiences of his youth. This sees Bryson travelling from Hammerfest in Norway to France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and finally Istanbul in Turkey.

Bryson is generally lauded for his humorous writing, and I’ll admit that I might have giggled once or twice, but unless you’re a fan of toilet humour or racial stereotypes, then this book won’t tickle your funny bone as much as you’d hoped. The author seems to have a teenager’s obsession with sex, frequently makes use of hyperbole in an attempt to create a laugh, and generally whines and complains his way from one city to the next without any real aim or story to tell.

Almost every chapter follows the same formula: Bryson catches a train somewhere, books into a crummy hotel, has a steaming shower, goes out for a beer. He complains about the price of everything, hardly ever eats anything other than MacDonalds, complains about MacDonalds, and has about two conversations with locals during the whole affair. The entire trip is one unplanned, aimless wander from one city to the next where he notices only the bad, rarely anything good, and seems to have only enjoyed his few days in Capri and Lake Como. He finally ends our misery in Istanbul, staring over the Bosphorus, wishing he could go to Asia: “But I didn’t go. Instead I ordered another Coke and watched the ferries. In other circumstances I think I might have gone. But that of course is neither here nor there.” What a disappointing ending.

As a series of mediocre blog entries, each chapter would probably have worked well enough. But as a narrative there is much left to be desired. Even though his trips to Europe are about twenty years apart, you hardly see any character development or growth. A novel should also have a theme that ties it all together and ends with a satisfying conclusion. This book does not deliver on that front either.

It’s not all bad, of course. I enjoyed some of his observations about places that I have been to, and his glimpse into what life is like for locals in Sofia (Bulgaria) is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, it’s just not good enough to make me want to put the book down and get on a plane to Europe.

It’s possible that Neither Here Nor There is not the best example of Bryson’s writing. I might read another one of his books to give the guy a fair chance. But based on this book alone, I’m afraid he just doesn’t live up to the hype.

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