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I must admit that despite being a big fan of travel writing I had never heard of Alexander Frater. When my husband bought his book, Tales from the Torrid Zone, 2nd hand for me I didn’t know what to expect but feeling like a change after reading about the Arab world, I decided to try it. The Tropics are fascinating and it seems that Frater is perfectly placed to write about them because he was born in Iririki, Vanuatu and spent his journalistic life travelling to and writing about the tropics.
Frater obviously did a lot of research and reading of history and sprinkles the text with facts and vignettes. However, I don’t really enjoy his writing style because of his strange lack of punctuation but I persisted anyway because there are occasional vignettes that make it worthwhile. I took it with me on my current trip to Arabia and it has provided me with diversion when needed, for example sitting at a border crossing for 1 1/2 hours. As Sara Wheeler from the Guardian said:
At 388 pages, the book could have done with rather more artful editing. Inconsequential details about scary plane rides or the company that provided the wine at an awards dinner should have got the red pencil treatment, as should the episode when our man almost gets bitten by a dog, but doesn’t. The prose style is breezy and chatty, but Frater could have worked harder at weeding out the clichés.
It was of course thrilling to read about his experiences in the countries that I have visited or want to visit or have friends from those places. Frater makes some sweeping generalizations about the reasons for most tropical nations being unable to move forward economically, socially and politically that are amusing to read but could be quite offensive to some readers.
By far the best redeeming feature of this sometimes tedious rambling account writing, by an older and somewhat fuddy duddy gent, is the section on rivers. Here, finally, Frater almost manages to build a narrative thread. His journeys down the Irrawaddy and up the Amazon were good to read. I have been in the far western Amazonian jungle and to Rio, Brazil but never actually seen the Amazon River. Similarly, I have dreamt of visiting Burma, especially now that the request not to travel has been lifted, I’ve attended talks by authors who’ve spent a lot of time there, I’ve bought the Lonely Planet Guide and planned a trip but never made it there … yet! His interaction with the Burmese princess was fascinating and reminded me of the royalty that I know, including an Uzbek prince, and the Cambodian princess that my husband worked with. If ordinary people find it hard to start again in a new culture, imagine how hard it is for ex-royalty!
The other interesting section was his trip to Yemen where he encounters a wedding party. The men of the grooms family stood on a cliff top on one side of the valley, slowly dancing and shooting their Kalashnikovs, while on the other side, the women of the brides family climbed onto precipices, dressed in heals and fancy clothes, and sang to the men on the other side, who paid them no attention.
Much of the book is set in Polynesia and while I haven’t been there I am not that interested either and Frater failed to generate much interest either. He is exceedingly well connected and I enjoyed reading some of his interactions with Chiefs and the arbitrary way that they would connect and then just as quickly disconnect from Frater. I would have preferred if he spent more time writing about the rest of the tropics but perhaps there is less written about Polynesia and obviously it’s dear to his heart because that’s where he’s from.
Perhaps readers who are much older than me or who grew up it spent a lot of time on Pacific Islands will enjoy this book but otherwise Frater’s book is unlikely to appeal.