Essays on living abroad by writers who include Isabel Allende, Simon Winchester, Emma Tennant, and Paul Theroux
A House Somewhere: Tales of Life Abroad. By Don George and Anthony Sattin. Lonely Planet, 310 pp., $13.99, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Oh, the morning-after-Christmas regrets of a critic! Were you looking for a gift for people who like the travel narratives of Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes? Reader, I failed you. A House Somewhere is fine book for those people but was published in 2002 and, I thought, might be hard to find. So I left it off my gift guides and in favor of books I knew you could find easily.
But A House Somewhere has an appeal that transcends the holidays. Editors Don George and Anthony Sattin have collected 26 essays about living abroad, most by British or American writers. And like all good travel writing, these narratives are about psychological as much as physical landscapes.
Novelist Paul Theroux writes of his free-fall into anonymity when he taught English in Singapore: “Everything has to be proven anew, and if you need humility, look at the bookshelf behind you where your novels, even last year’s, have become discolored and mildewed in the humidity: they could be the books of a dead man.” On different scale, that is what happens to anyone who lives overseas – you become dead to the old ideas that people have of you, even those you have of yourself, and alive to the new.
At its best, A House Somewhere is about such transformations. Eight essays are original works by authors who include Isabel Allende, Simon Winchester, and Jan Morris. Others come from well-known books such as Mayle’s A Year in Provence, Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, Emma Tennant’s A House in Corfu, Niall Williams and Christine Breen’s O Come Ye Back to Ireland, and Tim Parks’s Italian Neighbors (which gives a more complex and less romanticized view of Italy than Mayes’s work). There are odd omissions – nothing from Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island or writers who have lived in Israel, Eastern Europe, or Latin America. Even so, A House Somewhere more good essays about living abroad than any book I can name. Know a traveler who has a birthday coming up?
Best line: Not the best line, but perhaps the best one-line summary of a theme of this book, comes from Paul Theroux’s Sunrise with Seamonsters: “Expatriates by the very fact of their having come to the tropics are considered by the locals to be somewhat crazed, and the expatriate who fails to be a person in any subtle sense can still, with little effort, succeed ‘a character.’”
Worst line: From Willams and Breen’s O Come Ye Back to Ireland: “Back in the garden [in County Clare] we looked at every growing thing in a new light. Everything that rises above the soil is intimately a part of our life here. We were newly conscious of cycles, rhythms, and patterns. There is a wonderful sense of closeness between earth and human. All old clichés perhaps …” Uh-huh. And “old clichés” is redundant, because a cliché is a word or phrase that has become old to the ear, even if it’s new to the world.
Recommended if … you or someone you know enjoys true stories of life abroad.
Published: December 2002
FYI: Amazon had 4 copies of this book available on Dec. 26 . www.amazon.com
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.