Monday, 29 May 2017

Travel book review: The Excursionist by JD Sumner

In an age of idealised travellers' lives played out on Instagram, The Excursionist is an antidote to pristine selfies and hot dog legs set against a backdrop of turquoise seas. It is a novel that taps into many of the realities of modern-day travel, despite being a work of fiction. The idea of ticking off countries and the desire to join the Travelers' Century Club, where members have bagged 100 nations, is something many people can identify with. Travelling today has become a competitive pastime for many and the protagonist of The Excursionist, Jack Kaganagh has bought into it.

Over the course of ticking off countries numbering 98, 99 and 100, all of which fall in the Coronation Islands, he seems to have missed much of the pleasure that can be derived from travelling. Instead, he seems to be spending his holiday enduring the couple piling on the PDA at the pool, the need to pay extortionate prices for excursions and the combined irritation of gnat bites and sunburn. This results in a darkly comic tale, which only gets more morose as the truth about his absent former fiancee comes to light.

Much of the pleasure of reading The Excursionist comes from recognising the situations that Kaganagh finds himself in. After all, anyone who has travelled extensively has had the need to develop a strategy against being sold items they neither need nor want. And sitting alone at dinnertime in a restaurant is all too familiar for solo travellers and those who globetrot in a pair contemplate with dread. The absence of Kay, the aforementioned ex-fiancee, is felt keenly from the start, with a description of the role she used to perform:

"Kay used to take care of all form filling. She used to fill in every embarkation and disembarkation form, visa application, customer-satisfaction survey or any of those other forms you have to fill in at check-in. I had to make do with putting down 'Radio ventriloquist' as my 'Occupation', 'Graceland' as my 'Address' and 'Unlikely' as an answer to 'Sex'."

After all, as you travel more and more with a loved-one, you both fall into step and each take care of specific areas of a trip. It becomes an unspoken expectation that the organisation of the itinerary and important documents will be the responsibility of one party, while the other researches the destination and picks out well-reviewed restaurants that must be visited during the course of the holiday. What JD Sumner does in The Excursionist is make the reader think about these little acts that seem so natural and wonder how we would cope should our regular travel partner suddenly no longer be there.

What I will take away from the book is an important reminder never to lose the real point of visiting a new place. That is to experience its culture and celebrate its uniqueness without getting caught up in the idea of ticking it off just for the sake of it. Kaganagh is in the enviable situation of being able to travel in luxury with no expense spared, but this provides a certain amount of separation between himself and the countries he visits. Anyone looking to get a real sense of The Coronation Islands will not find it here. Instead, they will be presented with a cautionary tale about getting caught up in the trappings of travel and not enjoying the ride.

The Excursionist by JD Sumner is out now.

A review copy of The Excursionist was received free of charge.