Perceptive Travel Book Reviews October 2017
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: This month, two memoirs by women who travel in very different ways to escape trauma, and an enticing set of photographs of European pilgrimage routes.

Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan
By Emma Slade

In the ever-expanding universe of books that blur memoir and travel, the autobiographical elements seem to be in the ascendant. Despite this book having as its frontispiece a world map with a promising number of places marked on it, from Byron's Bay to San José, autobiography is the main driving force. However, it is a mighty interesting autobiography. In these 300 lucid pages, Emma Slade goes from art student to corporate female to yoga devotee to Buddhist nun in Bhutan.

The event which catapulted her from one life to another occurred when she was working as a high-flying investment banker based in Hong Kong "where fast-money-fast is the only sandwich in town.” One day while on business in Jakarta in 1997, she was held at gunpoint for several hours in her hotel room. The vivid and detailed description of her ultra-luxurious surroundings paints a picture of a privileged yet hollow life, which the terrifying intrusion caused her to reassess. The gripping narrative of her ordeal ends with her rescue and the murder of her assailant by armed police, all of which give rise later to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Eight months later, aged 31, she resigns from her job with no clue what to do next, telling friends and family that she is "going travelling" though she has little appetite for it. In fact, at her mother's urging, she goes to a holiday course on the Greek island of Skyros, drops into a yoga lesson and realizes immediately that she loves it and that she is a natural. The new trajectory of her life is set. She sells everything she has in England, and sets off with a backpack to Texas, Hawaii, New Mexico, Australia, Costa Rica and so on, to study under various renowned yoga teachers.

Gradually, she becomes immersed in the spiritual and philosophical side of yoga and, after an intense period of solitary meditation, she commits herself to pursuing Tibetan Buddhism. With considerable skill, she tries to make her spiritual experiences accessible to the reader. For me the most interesting aspect of the book is her relationship with Bhutan, the little-known country famous for putting its Gross National Happiness above GDP. After her first visit, she becomes so enamored of this Himalayan kingdom that she returns frequently. The humble accommodation offered there is a world away from the palatial hotels of her past. When she meets the holy man who becomes her lama (teacher), we might imagine we have crash-landed in Shangri-La from Lost Horizon, the 1930s tale of travelers who stumble into a beautiful Buddhist utopia. She seems able to live with one foot in the East and one in the West, which is an impressive achievement.

All the proceeds from the book are going towards the charity Opening Your Heart to Bhutan, which she set up in 2015 to help impoverished children in rural Bhutan.

The Wild Other: A Memoir
By Clover Stroud

Here is another writer who seeks solace in travel (but certainly not in meditation). The trauma from which she is trying to escape is truly horrific. When Clover Stroud was sixteen, her much loved mother was permanently brain damaged after being thrown by her horse and lived for a further 22 years without language or recognition of her family. Overnight the daughter feels that her cozy rural home in southern England has been eviscerated. She becomes a feral child, embarking on devil-may-care travels and relationships to fill the aching void. Rather than being deterred from the activity that claimed her mother, she rides hard and dangerously with gypsies in Ireland, cowboys in Texas and the Cossacks of the Russian steppes.

The book is saved from being just another misery memoir by the quality of the writing. (It was short-listed for the 2017 Wainwright Prize in the UK, an annual literary prize awarded for excellence in nature and UK-based travel writing.) She forces the reader to share her pain and to sympathize with her need to push herself to extremes and to embrace danger, even when she becomes a single mother.

Her most shocking travel episodes take place in the wilds of North Ossetia in the Caucasus (bordering Georgia) which was and still is deemed dangerous to visit unless for "essential travel.” The author had become enthralled by an Ossetian circus rider called Zour and fantasizes about being a "gangster's moll". She really is in love with adventure and risk-taking, but is caught in a struggle between this aspect of her personality and her fierce love of her children and wish to provide a home like the one her mother had given her.

Horses provide the thread that unites the book and even those of us who are normally unmoved by equine tales have to acknowledge the intensity of the bond between human and animal. She returns again and again to the White Horse of Uffington, the prehistoric drawing of a horse inscribed in chalk onto the side of an Oxfordshire hill. Without wanting to give too much away about the ending, the author seems to find peace and stability living near the White Horse, not much more than 20 miles from where she grew up. But the complex route by which she gets to this point makes for a gripping read.


Pilgrimage: The Great Pilgrim Routes of Britain and Europe
By Derry Brabbs

After these contemporary tales of struggle, it is a relief to turn to a book consisting primarily of photographs of beautiful buildings and landscapes. The photographer-author has chosen about a dozen medieval pilgrim routes to photograph in all their splendor. Holy edifices and fortifications line the many routes that converged from all over Europe in Santiago de Compostelo in northwest Spain. These luminous photographs capture the beauty and majesty of the buildings in their natural settings. Honey-colored hilltop castles stand out against stormy black skies, mediaeval stone carvings and stained-glass windows jump out from the page. The names of the routes may not be familiar, so it is all the more interesting to focus on the Via Coloniensis, the 147-mile route between the two great Roman cities in Germany of Cologne and Trier, or the important Via Francigena leading from Calais in northern France to Rome. Pilgrimage serves a useful function in pointing readers to the 32 Cultural Routes designated by the Council of Europe (

It is a shame that the intention to catalog the most inspiring pilgrim routes in Europe is let down by the quality of the text. Much of the prose is clumsy and illogical. References are dropped in without explanation (does everybody else know immediately what the Mozarabic resettlement is?) while at other times the obvious is stated, for example when we are told that many old Roman routes are now busy highways and therefore no fun to traverse by foot. The copy-editing is lamentable, with place names spelled differently inside the same caption (Avranches/Avrances), use of miles and kilometers deployed on the same page, and many typographical mistakes ("complex tracery in the widows"). I was reading a pre-publication digital version, so perhaps there is a chance these will be amended in the printed book.

The way that background information is presented does not do justice to the beauty of the photos. The commentary is too often reminiscent of a tour guide who fails to grab your attention; for instance this accompanies photos of the marvelous walled city of Caceres in central Spain on the Via de la Plata, the north-south route to Santiago from Seville: "The first Christian repossession took place under Alfonso VII in 1140 and the knightly order of Santiago was first founded there in 1170 under the name of the Fratres de Cáceres.” Occasionally we are allowed a personal response to a landscape but mostly the captions resort to clichés ("No visitor could fail to be inspired by such surroundings").

So it is best to let the photographs speak for themselves. Left on a coffee table, this volume will give pleasure and possibly inspiration. It might provide the spark for readers to investigate the practicalities of undertaking one of these pilgrimages on foot or at least to seek out some of the cultural treasures recorded and captured here.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, an online British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith.

Also in this issue:

Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan

Buy Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US

Sign Up

The Wild Other

Buy The Wild Other: A Memoir at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US

Pilgrimage: The Great Pilgrim Routes of Britain and Europe

Buy Pilgrimage: The Great Pilgrim Routes of Britain and Europe at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US