The Excursionist was released today.
Book advertisements need to stop comparing new coming books to old ‘successful’ ones because it’s damaging to the emerging author. Readers automatically come to the book with an exact expectation, and I found that so far on Goodreads the book has received somewhere between 2-3 stars simply because readers’ expectations were not met. The first line in every one of its ads is as follows: “The anti-Eat Pray Love – A darkly comic novel about travel.” My mind automatically went to cynical of: ‘travelogue,’ ‘self-discovery’ or in a way convince us that traveling isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be. I wanted wanderlust travelers to be exposed for being as empty as the rest of us (just for a different take on it). I’m angry as a reader for two reasons: one that the ads for this book let J.D. Sumner down, and two: that readers (who should know better) changed their answers on Goodreads. I tracked some of the linked reviews and they gave this book 4 or 5 stars and as soon as they got on Goodreads and saw some cranky first reviewers changed their answers to 2-3 stars. Stand by your first instinct and trust your own opinion!
So here’s what this book is actually about:
The main character, Jack Kaganagh, wants to visit 100 countries so that he may enter the Travelers’ Century Club all before he turns 45. His fiancé had been an enthusiast for traveling and they had gone on some adventures together, yet recently his fiancé has disappeared, in fact everything about her has an aura of strangeness around it. For his final choices of destinations he has chosen to go to the ‘Coronation Islands’ which are between Madagascar and Sri Lanka: Placentia, Kilrush, and Fulgary. Although there is a Coronation Island near Australia, the locations Kaganagh travels to are fictional.
Sumner begins the novel with this lovely quotation from When The Going Was Good by Evelyn Waugh:
“at the age of thirty-five one needs to go to the moon or some such place, to recapture the excitement with which one first landed at Calais.”
However, the quotation starting part two, is much more suited to our main character:
“I am free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally.” – W.C. Fields
The novel isn’t dark and comic but the main character is. I found it easier to imagine someone like Dr. House to be on this trip (seriously, House even said: “It’s nothing personal, I don’t like anybody” in Season 1).
A cranky, cynical person, who has had so many life experiences that he’s resistant to many things and won’t take too much attitude from people. He’s obviously privileged (100 countries by 45) and an Englishman. I do think this book is a critique of the people who travel for traveling’s sake rather than feeling drawn to true adventure. Traveling to tick of check marks, or put notches down – or share it on social media for others to know and see that you have done it is not the same as fully enjoying the place and having a real adventure. Jack spends his mornings sleeping in, and taking interim naps, he reads the preface to another author’s book In Placentia (also fictional) and falls asleep. He just wants to get to that 100 Countries club. Jack is not enjoying anything, he’s clearly depressed from losing his fiancé and adventure buddy. He kind of reminded me of the Cohen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davies. I also think there are opportunities to read closer into the names he gives places, books, and authors.
J.D. Sumner graduated from The Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College Dublin and has a Ph.D. in Satirical Travel Writing from Royal Holloway College, University of London. His thesis explores the history of British travel writing and examines how the literature of exploration, which initially presented itself as factual, evolved into the fictional use of travel writing.
I for one enjoyed his constructions. This story has so many layers and there are so many “books” that Jack is reading that don’t exist. I liked it.
I recommend this book to people who are fans of studying travel literature and can see past an “easy” read. This is NOT a real travelogue, or a ‘finding yourself’ kind of story.