This post is a part of my year-long quest in 2017 to read only female-authored travel writing. Find out more about it on the project’s main page.
Let’s start with the confession, or should that be the admission of defeat: A Ride in the Neon Sun: A Gaijin in Japan by Josie Dew is the first book in my year of reading female travel writers that I have failed to finish.
I feel bad about this, because it is my aim to try to read as much as I can from this type of book and share my thoughts. If I don’t finish a book then I feel like I am letting myself, any readers, and the whole purpose of this mission down.
I also feel a bit let down myself, however, because the reason I didn’t finish this book is that it is long, plodding and sorely lacking a good editor. On balance, I don’t feel too guilty for failing to reach the end.
As I explained in my preview, there was much to like about this idea of this book – an interesting country, and an interesting mode of transport. And I’ll start with a positive, by saying that the author comes over as a bright, breezy, engaging individual whose energy is admirable, whose drive to complete a cycle through Japan is commendable, and whose willingness to throw herself into so many difficult situations and so many interesting encounters all have the makings of good travel writing.
Very sadly, it just doesn’t come together. The key problems are length, pace and narrative. To start with, the book is long. At 600 pages it’s perhaps double the size of a typical novel or travelogue. You have to have very good reasons to go over two or three hundred pages, and I am not convinced that a cycle through Japan, epic though it might be, is such a good reason.
But the book is not just long. Long in itself can be fine. Long can work. But when the length consists of plodding prose that never gives much sense of progress or achievement, the reader can be left frustrated and increasingly disinterested.
The start of the book, for instance, is slow, with the author giving us no sense of progress towards the beginning of her journey. The step by step, blow by blow account she gives of pretty much everything she does is set out as a defining style for the book in the early pages when, for instance, she spends two whole pages describing the process of getting into a bath, and three pages describing her hotel room. Later, she devotes three whole pages to the size, shape and content of a train ticket, two pages to the process of changing into slippers when entering someone’s bathroom, and four pages on bowing.
Now, all these things can be very different in a country like Japan, and Dew has a good eye for detail and a desire to highlight the little things that stand out. But to linger on them obsessively makes for a frustrating read when all you want to do as a reader is join her on the open road.
The most painful exposition is eight long pages on the education system in Japan, known for its strict discipline and punishing schedule that instills in Japanese pupils both a wealth of knowledge and a bucketload of stress. Now, that should be interesting stuff, and in a sense it is. But it is written not as a travel writer’s observation in the context of her journey, but as what must be thousands of words of dry historical and cultural study. There is no use of the first person, no reaction or reflection from the author, and no connection to her adventures. The extract belonged in an article on Japanese education, not in a travelogue taking us from one end of the country to the other.
Even when on the road, I found Dew’s style and manner frustrating. She would write at a constant pace, dwelling on what seem to be irrelevant details, repeating her descriptions of routine actions such as cycling, sorting her camping gear, or navigating basic conversations in her impressive, better-than-basic Japanese. The failure to allow herself to fly on the page as she must have done at times in the saddle meant I struggled to engage with, relate to or empathise much with what she went through, and I failed to be encouraged as a reader to appreciate the highs and lows.
Consequently, few places or people came alive for me. By about two thirds of the way through the book I gave up, absorbing little about the country and being infected with none of the author’s love or enthusiasm for it.
And it’s a shame, really, because there could and should be the potential of an engaging read here. The author has, at times, a lovely turn of phrase and displays a repeated sense of fun. I laughed out loud when she described the Italian language as a mix of birdsong and hedgetrimmer. I liked how, at one point, she evocatively referred to a “paddy field of clouds” in the sky.
Some of her cultural expositions are genuinely interesting, too. I liked her explanation of industrialisation in Japan as the country emerged from centuries of isolation to embrace globalisation. Some of the facts behind war cliches such as the kamikaze pilots, or descriptions of family life, are revealing. Four pages on the role the emperors have played, from their deification to the humiliation of 1945’s military surrender, made for fascinating stuff. And I loved how she described the weird and wonderful things you find in a Japanese supermarket as “more the sort of things you would expect to find in the experimental section of a science laboratory than a foodstore”. These little flashes of Japan as – in the most complimentary way – a truly alien culture are gripping.
Further, there are a handful of interesting observations about gender. Dew persuasively paints Japan as a place where women can travel as safe as they can possibly do so, with the country’s inherent instinct for respect and politeness leading to few problems for the author and, on occasions, some significant benefits in terms of offers of help and hospitality.
At one point, she reflects poignantly:
One of the wonders of Tokyo for me (small, lone female) was the feeling of uplifting liberty at being able to go virtually anywhere at any time without the fear of violence hanging heavy like a yoke around my neck. Few other major cities in the world can boast of such safety on their streets. To walk alone, unmolested, down a dark alley in an unsalubrious area of the city at two o’clock in the morning and pass a shadow that manifests itself as a lone drunk man who does nothing more than sing to the moon or bid a polite goodnight is a truly edifying experience.”
And the worst she encounters on the gender front – at least before I gave up reading – was a male motorist, parked up at the side of the road, who flashed a porn mag at her and made a lecherous comment.
So in one sense I am glad to have included this book in my list because it comprehensively demonstrates that women can be safe on the road, at least somewhere in the world. And as I say the book does have some interesting parts.
But such positives are frustratingly too few in number and impact. Indeed, on rare occasions Dew, far from demonstrating her trademark rambling narrative, left me wanting more. To continue the gender theme, she writes at one point about how she trusted a male motorcyclist she met by the side of the road enough to have dinner with him, although somewhat lets the reader down by failing to expand on what happened in the encounter and why she found the situation so typically unthreatening.
Then in another part of the story she makes a very quick, passing reference to Yokohama’s Chinatown, yet gives no explanation as to why there might be a Chinatown in Japan. Given the twentieth century history of conflict between the two countries, some background as to how Chinese people came to settle in such a homogenous country as Japan would have been an obvious and fascinating sidetrack, but one she didn’t seem to consider worth undertaking in the slightest.
So it is actually strange that the author should for the most part trundle along at a soporific pace of writing, yet throw a few bones that suggest that she could have delivered some outstanding anecdotes and tangents.
I should try to conclude on a positive. Josie Dew is a writer who has undertaken an incredible journey, written about it and researched it thoroughly, and come up with an epic book to show for it. And because of those strengths, I’m tempted to say that the weakness of the story is not entirely in the telling (though it at least partly is), but in the editing.
A good editor of a travelogue ought to have a firm handle on how the author delivers the story, whether and how the narrative changes gear and pace, and how the reader is carried along by the adventures. That in this case the editor did not successfully challenge the author on pace, variation, and just frankly the overall length is seriously disappointing.
A bit more chiselling from a good editor might have produced a fine book from an admirable journey and a thorough write-up. Sadly, I was left with a book I simply couldn’t drive myself to complete. Obviously an author and author alone is responsible for what they write, but in a traditionally and professionally published book the role of editor is – or should be – crucial.
I feel bad for not finishing the book, and am open to rebuke from readers of this post who did make it to the end and thought higher of it than I did. But I do feel that this book was a let down, with a great adventure turned into a mediocre travelogue.