Travel writing: Peaks and pavements

'To A Mountain In Tibet' travels through the writer's life along with the Himalayan peaks. Photo / Thinkstock
'To A Mountain In Tibet' travels through the writer's life along with the Himalayan peaks. Photo / Thinkstock

The boldest travel writing crosses every frontier of genre as well as place. Yet the modest masters of this hybrid, mongrel art sometimes disappear into their prose.

Aiming high even by his lofty standards, Colin Thubron's To A Mountain In Tibet (Chatto & Windus $37.99) for once saw this pure artist of the voyage look backwards and within, to his late mother and his childhood, as well as up to the Himalayan peaks and peoples that he sumptuously evokes.

The traveller's own destiny also added piquancy to Thin Paths by Julia Blackburn (Jonathan Cape $46.99). Its ravishingly fine descriptive prose, inspired by the Ligurian mountain village where she settled with her husband, is shaded by a string of bereavements: within her family, among her neighbours, and from the troubled past of this part of Italy.

Moving from rural seclusion to metropolitan hubbub, New York life and its ever-changing tones and flavours gave Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts an urgent, buzzing backdrop to the suite of memoirs and reflections in Harlem Is Nowhere (Granta $36) - her set of dazzling riffs on the cultural citadel of black America.

So often seen as an Anglophone speciality, travel literature has other illustrious homes. Europe's far west guards its mysteries and secrets, and no writer has plumbed their depths so lyrically and learnedly as Yorkshire-born Tim Robinson.

This year saw the climax of his great trilogy about the landscapes, legends and people of the West of Ireland, Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (Penguin $55) - surely a literary classic, whatever its genre. From England's wild west, Philip Marsden elegantly matched the maritime history of Falmouth and Cornwall with his own water-borne adventures in The Levelling Sea (HarperPress $54.99).

As usual, historic cities incited authors to scale the narrative heights. Simon Sebag Montefiore's "biography" of Jerusalem (Phoenix $39.99) may count as a wide-angle, high-energy history of this most fiercely contested urban terrain. But it also serves as a wonderfully evocative guide to the past and present of its story-soaked stones, even-handed, high-spirited and far more enjoyably full of sex and scandal than pilgrims might expect.

Meanwhile, in Rome (Weidenfeld & Nicolson $60), the ever-eloquent Robert Hughes merged a galloping overview into his forte of art criticism. He composed a richly textured portrait of a city we see, and feel, afresh. Each monument and artwork sparkles, scrubbed clean of tired clichés.

The thematic narrative that visits multiple destinations presents its writer with an extra mountain to climb. James Attlee conquered it in style with Nocturne (Hamish Hamilton $55), a "journey in search of moonlight" that took him through science, art and literature as well as from Wales to Nevada to Japan.

In contrast, for To the River (Canongate $37), Olivia Laing walked along the Ouse in Sussex. Yet her micro-expedition yielded a haul of gems, as she fed a moving memoir into the currents of culture and history that flow around its banks.


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