After his brother’s death, a young American sets out to backpack around Europe in this debut novel.
Stephen Kylemore’s fixation with travel comes in part from reading “too many novels.” From an early age, he took to perusing the books his elder brother, Edward, left behind. During a tour of duty in Vietnam, Edward writes to Stephen, recommending he read Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander. When Edward is killed in battle, the novel is returned home as part of his effects. Stephen reads the book over the course of one evening and is fascinated by the mystical setting of Catalonia. He purchases a one-peseta Catalonian coin for good luck and as a reminder of his brother and starts to plan the journey that in happier circumstances he and Edward would have taken together. Leaving behind his partner, Pam, Stephen takes a flight from New York to London and begins his adventure. His initial target destination is Grettstadt in Germany, where he believes his old boss will set him up with a job. He meanders his way there, first catching a ferry to the Netherlands and then hitchhiking. His mind regularly turns to the love he left behind, his lost brother, and the hope of finally arriving in Catalonia. The novel captures the naiveté of a young, wide-eyed American traveling overseas for the first time—comparing all that he encounters to home: “Tiny cars, large black taxis and double-decker buses drove on the wrong side of the street. Still, it seemed a bit staged, as if this weren’t real.” Such passages read as extracts from a travel diary, and as a consequence it is easy to forget that this is a work of fiction. In Stephen, Ried has created a believable and likable first-person narrator that speaks with a simple sincerity: “I loved my brother and I hated war, but I was resolved that my life would be enriched, not shrouded, by his memory.” The author’s prose never displays the fervid passion for the road found in Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler nor captures the vulnerability of being penniless and exposed to the grime of the urban underbelly evoked in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. But Ried’s narrative earnestness is sufficiently beguiling to make this an emotionally engaging travel novel that will prove difficult to put down.
Full-hearted, believable writing in an enjoyable travel tale.