This review also appears on Goodreads (Mis)judging this book by its cover the unwary reader might wander into Mr Snack and the Lady Water expecting a light, witty, post-Bryson travelogue, only to be somewhat surprised as they find themselves lotion-deep in a Jakarta massage parlour as the author retells his difficulty in declining the inevitable, ahem, “upsell”. Wrong turn maybe, but right book – Brendan Shanahan’s mildly uneven but compelling Travel Noir collection showcases an engaging writer happy to leave the rose-tinted glasses behind on his journeys.
Shanahan picks his targets well in this collection – you probably do not own short-sleeved casual wear from these locations. In “Babyland” he discovers the official Cabbage Patch doll theme park, housed in a former American hospital complete with uniformed “medical staff” and dolls as patients, including preemies in incubators.
Granted, with that set-up an illiterate Martian could no doubt spec-pitch a New Yorker feature, but even so the author gets somewhere special here. On the gift shop checkout queue caused by the brand necessity of having to “adopt” your doll as you pay for it: “there are real live children in Russia you can buy with fewer formalities, and for less money.”
Shanahan wants more than laughs though and tries to unpick whether Babyland might be the pivot where pervasive consumerism creates an unhealthy reality distortion field. Encountering a heavily made-up “nurse” cradle-rocking a doll, his spacey, semi-communicative non-conversation with her becomes an uneasy, Lynchian tableau – both innocuous scene and something darker. It’s lovely, lovely anti-travel writing and a pleasure of a chapter.
“White and wrongs”, set in 1996 South Africa, is similarly rewarding – devoid of any travel journo press junket gloss. Shanahan’s Johannesberg is “LA after the apocalypse ... an anti-city, a black hole metropolis where the bleakest predictions of the most pessimistic dystopians have come horribly true.” Well, that’s your retirement home sorted then Brendan.
He loathes the white suburbia his hosts live in and their attitudes to black staff – a country where “they lugged garbage while you sipped wine and did your White Mischief routine in the kitchen”; a country where public spaces are abandoned before sunset, afraid of the dark like peasants in a fairy tale; a country where home is a gated fortress hiding behind 12-foot walls and razor wire. These are barriers both physical and symbolic – the safe haven where you can complain about the difficulty of getting good servants, but also the damning Trumanesque ignorance-bubble that the rest of the world DOESN’T HAVE SERVANTS.
Shanahan is no disinterested observer though – desperate here that his host’s maid, Sunday, realises he’s better than the braying racists she works for – “a white emissary from a land of freedom and kindness”. Does he succeed? Buy the book people – and do so knowing that he always has the backbone to mirror that bright shining light of Truth to Power back on himself.
As good as this stuff is, it also reveals an arguable flaw in Lady Water. 1996 South Africa is way back when, well documented by the brilliance of Rian Malan and others. What I think I wanted here was a picture of South Africa in 2013. Have the 12 foot walls become 9? Does Sunday have a servant? The author is upfront and honest about the timeframe these pieces cover, but it still nags a touch.
Throughout, Shanahan is determined to engage with the people as much as the place. There's a LOT of dialogue here, all minty-fresh-contemperaneous-transcription-dropbox-sync snappy. Hmm – the author either has a perfect memory or...
Well, let’s not go there. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where Shanahan sits on the spectrum between Hansard and James Frey, but it's easy to imagine him slightly right of centre. A little literary license is OK of course, and expected, but the amount of dialogue here did surprise.
The final piece, Las Vegas as instagram-vivid literary postcards, is quality writing, but feels fragmentary – observations too “small” for a collection like this. To call it filler would be wrong – even here the author has no interest in the low-hanging fruit of The Strip or the casinos – but there’s less heft than there should be.
Overall, In Mr Snack and the Lady Water Shanahan’s blend of brutal observation and not a little cruelty is difficult to warm to, but comes with real conviction and provides genuine literary value. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read this, and hope to see more, up-to-date, travel writing from him – ideally a single journey on a single theme.
So - right places, arguably wrong times.
Update 24 March 2013:
The author has correctly and reasonably pointed put an error I made in describing some time he spent sleeping in a house in Varanasi as "overnight" when in fact it was a shorter time period than this. I'm happy to correct this and the paragraph has had to be significantly rewritten.