Been there, done that

Cover of The Lower River“Never go back,” they say, “it’ll be completely different.”

Nobody told that to Ellis Hock (the main character in Paul Theroux‘s latest fiction offering The Lower River.) Actually, at the time he decided to return to Malawi, hardly anyone alive was still speaking to Ellis. So back he went, to the place where he had once been so happy.

And don’t tell me you’ve never done this: gone back to a place or a job or a man. Or even a hairstyle. I know I have. So, understandably my heart was heavy at the realisation that our Christmas Book Discussion Scheme novel was The Lower River. I did not anticipate a festive read.

Cover of To Timbuktu for a HaircutIndeed, it was the first of the books that we have read together that my group really disliked. They loathed Ellis, hated the snakes, found it incredibly tense and in parts repetitive. But, and here is the rub, everyone acknowledged that it is sweaty-palms well written. The dark tension ratchets up to the very last page. The “Never Go back” brigade score big time here.

At exactly the same time, the cutely titled To Timbuktu for a Haircut crossed my path. This details a true journey through West Africa (Mali in particular) by Rick Antonson. It has all the chaos that is a hallmark of African travel, endearing characters and the same underlying tension that by the end of the book was escalating to its current sad situation. Antonson loves Africa and yearns to return to Mali. But right now he would not be allowed in.

Cover of THe Hired ManThe Hired Man is not set in Africa, you may be relieved to hear, but is a novel by Aminatta Forna  that is set in Croatia. The main character, Duro, never leaves Croatia. His going back is not about place, it is about time. His past is as real to him as his present. Towards the end of this very gripping read, he says: Some people can never forget, some people choose not to remember.

Some thirteen years ago, in my first year as an immigrant to New Zealand, every night I said to my husband: I want to go home. That is correct: Every. Single. Night. So the topics of going back, or moving on, or running on the spot, are very dear to me.

And here’s what I’ve noticed: there are books that say Never Go back. There are books about Moving On and there are books where no one goes anywhere at all. But where is the book about going back and loving it? Does such a beast even exist?

12 thoughts on “Been there, done that

  1. Paula Green 5 February 2014 / 3:11 pm

    ———- Sent from my Nokia phone

  2. Ronel Moore 6 February 2014 / 9:05 am

    If I could write, I would write that book. That could be a lovely experience – picking up on previous connections and refreshing memories, but once one has moved on, is it even possible to go back personally, when so much growth has taken place? One could perhaps go back geographically, but never emotionally or spiritually.

    • robertafsmith 6 February 2014 / 1:35 pm

      In the same way that 60 is the new 50 and purple is the new black, could going back be the new going forward. If going back is about everything being different and hence “new” and going forward is the same thing. What is the difference? That is what the unknown novel that I am hoping has been written, will hopefully reveal! As yet there are no candidates!

  3. Marti Carroll 6 February 2014 / 9:20 am

    Yip. I agree with Ronel. I have just written a reply/comment to your facebook posting Roberta. Do you want me to copy it on this blog?

    • robertafsmith 6 February 2014 / 1:41 pm

      That would be great Marti!It reaches a different readership that way!

  4. Gallivanta 7 February 2014 / 9:02 pm

    I came back to NZ and loved it. But is ‘came back’ the same as ‘went back’? 😀

    • robertafsmith 8 February 2014 / 11:35 am

      Yes, I think it is – just depends on where you are when you say it? Have you written a book on this?

      • Gallivanta 8 February 2014 / 12:09 pm

        No 😦 . I wish I had the necessary oomph to do so. In fact coming back has been way more pleasant than my first visit which was to boarding school. Do you remember the Brylcreem ads……I came back, I came back, I came back……that seemed to be a happy experience for those returning to the land of Brylcreem 😀

  5. robertafsmith 9 February 2014 / 8:04 pm

    I don’t know those ads, I never grew up in New Zealand (well that’s my excuse), but you now have the dubious privilege, as a blogger, of giving me the one phrase I will never forget: “I came back to to the land of Brylcreem”. Love it, thank you!

  6. ruby2shoesnz 24 February 2014 / 6:17 pm

    Hi Roberta,
    great post.

    I haven’t written about it,however I suggest there is a difference when going back to ones birthplace for example than going back to a job or a book or a restaurant or some favourite old haunt.

    I came back and I love it. Came back that is from Australia to NZ.
    I was not homesick I wasn’t longing to come back. I thought I would be there in the glorious land of sunshine and amongst those laid back,know how to have fun Aussie’s forever, with just a hop over the ditch to good old NZ a couple of times a year.
    It was even a little scary coming back, Ten years away, a long time,loved my job and colleagues, loved my home and swimming pool. Great lifestyle new adventures.

    But I did come back and you know what I discovered my connection with the land again,the wonderful shared history with friends and family, old school mates
    A sense of truly belonging because this is truly my home where everything is familiar and full of memories good and bad.
    We learned that family is most important of all. Time goes by so quickly and children grow up so quickly suddenly everyone is so much older.

    One may gain when one leaves seeking better horizons however one may also gain much in going back. I know I have.


  7. robertafsmith 28 February 2014 / 10:15 am

    This is very cheering for me to read Diane, we will chat more when next I am at SH!

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