Home > 2010, 20th Century, 21st Century, American Literature, Australian Literature, Beach and Public Transports Books, Bryson Bill, Carey Peter, Non Fiction, Novel, Récit, Road trip > Australian reads: Down Under by Bill Bryson and about A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

Australian reads: Down Under by Bill Bryson and about A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) / A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (2017)

I’m flying to Australia in a few days and I have SEVEN unwritten billets about books I’ve read. I’m going to write short posts about them mostly because I don’t want to go on holiday and leave a backlog of billets behind. Work has been in the way of my writing and updating my blog.

The first book I’d like to talk about is Down Under. Travels in a Sunburnt Country by Bill Bryson. I have read it in French and since “Down Under” is a bit tricky to translate, it’s become “Nos voisins du dessous”. Bill Bryson tells us all about a road trip he made in Australia in 2000. I enjoyed the tone of his book and its content. It’s a good mix of personal experience and everyday life during his roadtrip, fun facts about Australia but also serious historical information and informative descriptions of nature, and especially the fauna.

It’s told with a healthy sense of humour, by someone who comes from Iowa, has lived in Great Britain and loves Australia. When he makes fun of Australians, it’s always with affection.

Here’s a sample of his easy-going prose, a story-telling tone that catches the reader’s attention.

Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered by sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.

It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the most famous and striking monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now official, more respectful Aboriginal name) It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick and stonesfish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you by actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous coneshell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy, but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

Well, our plane tickets are nonrefundable, so I guess we’ll just have to be prudent, eh?

I read his book partly at home and partly during a work trip while waiting at the airport. My constant giggling forced me to read passages to my colleagues or they would have thought I was nuts.

His trip includes a stay in Sydney, a visit to Camberra, Melbourne, some time in Queensland and some time in the Northern Territory. It was a pleasure to follow him, learn about the places he was visiting, discover mundane everyday life details and learn about the history of Australia.

Bill Bryson points out how little we hear about Australia in our respective countries. What is true for him in America is also true for me in France.

And this came back as a boomerang when I tried to read A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey. I had read an enthusiastic review by Lisa (see here) and since I love to read books about road trips, I thought it could be a good place to start with Carey.

I began reading it full of expectations and was soon stuck with it. I knew the words I was reading but didn’t understand what I was reading. I was totally missing the subtext. I was seriously rethinking my English abilities (and Australian English can be challenging) when I read Kim’s review. (see here)

She says “I love Carey’s prose, his long, descriptive sentences and quirky turns of phrase, the Australianness (is that a word?) of it all and his ability to capture period detail so extraordinarily well.”

And it was like a lightbulb! The Australianness that had enhanced the experience for Lisa and Kim totally lost me. See here:

The sonny was named Titch although he was sometimes Zac which was what they called a sixpence and a zac was therefore half a shilling or half a bob, which was, of course, his father’s name.

I don’t think you can expect a French reader to understand that kind of sentence. I also had to google Holden because I didn’t know what it was and there were lots of random details like this that left me dumbfounded.

It was indeed a long way from my home and I gave up. Maybe I’ll try it again after spending time in Australia… That’ll be a test: did I catch enough Australianness to understand Peter Carey?

  1. July 21, 2018 at 11:53 pm

    Well good luck with titch and zac and bob, they are slang from half a century ago. Carey I guess is trying to recapture a period as well as a place in which he no longer lives. And good luck with your trip, I have never seen any of those things that terrify Americans – well except for a few snakes- but there really are kangaroos in the main street if you get away from the urban connurbations along the east coast.


    • July 22, 2018 at 7:17 am

      That’s what Kim said : he recaptured the period very well but lost some non-informed readers on the way. It’s probably something I should read in translation with a healthy dose of footnotes.

      The funny is that your reaction is the one he mentions from Australians. 🙂 There’s a hilarious part where he goes swimming in Sydney and his friends casually tell him how to signal to a lifeguard if he feels himself dragged by the current.

      I’m sure you’re both right.

      He describes things that are consistent with Kenneth Cook’s book, True Country and Marie Munkara’s book as well.
      But you’re right, the occurrence of encountering such critters is very low and you must be in the right places. (except for stingers that are very real and very frequent in the summer)

      Bryson is genuinely interested in science, nature and animals in general. He mentions several scientific discoveries about new species and he’s truly fascinated by the fact that not all of Australia is precisely mapped out and known.

      He also did extensive research on history and I enjoyed his descriptions of cities.

      I think it’s a good introduction to a trip to Australia.


  2. July 22, 2018 at 12:55 am

    I’ll second what Bill says… I’ve lived in this country for decades, and I’ve *never* seen any of those creatures except the blur-ringed octopus which was preserved in formaldehyde in the museum.
    But in the right places in Melbourne you might see some of our beautiful birds: kookaburras, rosellas, magpies and galahs, alongside the ordinary birds you see everywhere (sparrows etc).


    • July 22, 2018 at 7:24 am

      Well if I remember well, you’ve never been to the places where these critters can be seen. 🙂 Let’s hope Sue drops by and hear what she has to say after her last trip to Bathurst Island. 🙂

      No worries. I know that while he’s not lying about these funny beasts, the chance to encounter one of them is small and I know we’ll only be going to touristy sites and that we’ll be fine if we follow the signs.

      He loves Australian cities too and he really makes you want to fly there and visit. I’m looking forward to landing in Sydney and start our trip.
      We all love botanical gardens in the family and from what I’ve read, the ones in Sydney, Cairns and Melbourne are worth the trip.


      • July 22, 2018 at 9:27 am

        Well, not quite. There are red-back spiders in garden sheds everywhere, and funnel-webs in Sydney and I’ve been there plenty of times. There are tiger snakes in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, not to mention blue-ringed octopi in the rock pools at Beaumaris. But the thing is, they are all more scared of us than we are of them and they make themselves scarce. As long as you don’t go putting your hand in places you can’t see, there’s very little chance of encountering them.


        • July 22, 2018 at 10:48 am

          OK, so there are dangerous things in cities as well. 🙂

          Bill Bryson is right again: Australians are used to paying attention and living with these dangerous critters around them. They downplay the danger because they’re used to it and know the appropriate behaviour.

          Tourists like us need to be warned not to put their hands in the wrong places, especially when you come from Europe where the most dangerous things are wasps and ticks.


          • July 22, 2018 at 10:52 am

            You can relax. I don’t think you’ll be poking around in a garden shed and if the hotel has any spiderwebs, complain to the concierge!


            • July 22, 2018 at 11:06 am

              Despite my many comments and readings, I’m relaxed. I’ll just follow signs, respect the instructions and enjoy myself.
              Driving on the “wrong” side of the road is going to be a bigger challenge!


              • July 28, 2018 at 8:57 am

                Just follow the signs Emma – hmm, you are possibly here already?

                I’ve just been up north as you know, and there were plenty of signs there about Crocodiles and Box jellyfish. But as Lisa and Bill say, the dangerous creatures mentioned by Bryson are not everyday occurrences. And you just have to know which places you need to be careful in. I lived in Sydney for 9 years and I don’t think I ever saw a funnel web. But, I’ve always loved the fact that Bryson makes us feel like very brave people! Haha. You can feel like a brave traveller now!


              • July 28, 2018 at 12:10 pm

                I’m currently in Sydney and I’ve already seen a big spider, inoffensive and I knew it thanks to the Australian Museum. -:)
                And yes, we thought we’d just follow the signs.

                Liked by 1 person

              • July 28, 2018 at 1:14 pm

                Huntsman was it? Good fly eating spider of so.


              • July 28, 2018 at 1:26 pm

                That’s it, Huntsman spider.

                Liked by 1 person

              • July 28, 2018 at 1:27 pm

                Thought so… Big and ugly but useful!

                Liked by 1 person

              • July 28, 2018 at 1:15 pm

                Oh and all bring well will post my Munkara tonight. How’s the jet lag?


              • July 28, 2018 at 1:26 pm

                It’s OK, better now.


              • July 28, 2018 at 1:28 pm

                Well done..it’s a long haul to here.


        • July 22, 2018 at 6:11 pm

          No no no I do not want to encounter any spiders on my stay in Sydney. Please can you get rid of them before I arrive (you have six months so should be feasible!)


          • July 22, 2018 at 7:34 pm



          • July 23, 2018 at 1:40 am

            You’re coming to Australia! How nice:)
            Seriously… whether spiders or not venomous or not, people do not let them proliferate in domestic urban spaces. Wikipedia tells me there are just 13 recorded cases of death – you are more likely to die of boredom on the plane than you are from any of Australia’s nasties.

            Liked by 1 person

            • July 23, 2018 at 7:43 am

              I’ll let you know about plane entertainment. Thank God for ereaders.


  3. July 22, 2018 at 5:45 am

    The purest Australian phrase I have ever heard – “well except for a few snakes.”


    • July 22, 2018 at 7:28 am

      I thought it would be “no worries, mate” 🙂


  4. July 22, 2018 at 5:33 pm

    Enjoy your trip… you will have an amazing time, Emma!


    • July 22, 2018 at 7:31 pm

      Thanks Kim. I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful trip.


  5. July 22, 2018 at 6:10 pm

    I’m just planning my own trip to Australia and am desperately trying not to get too worked up about that phrase “Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian.” I’m not planning to go deep into the outback or surfing but the thought I could be out just strolling in a national park and encounter a snake on the path (as my friends did) is just a little worrying.


    • July 22, 2018 at 7:33 pm

      About this sentence: think about the size of the country. It greatly limits the risk of an encounter with one of those not-so-friendly critters.

      Snakes and spiders and stuff… that’s what hiking boots and trousers are made for! I’ll let you know.


    • July 28, 2018 at 9:00 am

      haha karen … there are antivenoms for them all now I believe!! Seriously though, most snakes are not interested in contending with you. I’ve seen a few on walks over the years but never has one shown an interest in me. Keep to the paths if you are in bushy areas, and they’ll hear you coming. It’s worth watching the path nonetheless when you are walking, and then stopping when you want to look around. But that’s sensible practice for anyone walking in bush or forest. After all, we don’t want to fall for a start.

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 28, 2018 at 10:06 am

        Walking the streets of Sydney or Melbourne shouldnt be a problem then :). And do I don’t want to fall having done too much of that in the last year.


        • July 28, 2018 at 1:13 pm

          No they should be ok. Do give us your dates. Tepid be lovely to meet if we could align.


  6. July 22, 2018 at 6:57 pm

    Have a great trip. Try Amy Witting


    • July 22, 2018 at 7:30 pm

      Thanks and I will. It’s already on my kindle.


      • July 22, 2018 at 7:59 pm

        I think you’ll like her work.


        • July 22, 2018 at 8:08 pm

          Since we often have the same tastes, I will probably like I For Isobel.


          • August 14, 2018 at 9:32 am

            And so it came to pass 🙂


            • August 14, 2018 at 1:01 pm

              Exactly. I’m rarely disappointed when I read something Guy recommends.


  1. January 3, 2019 at 6:32 pm

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