The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story
Travel writers come in many forms as will be very clear to those attending the Sherborne Travel Writing Festival in April. The late Dervla Murphy approached all her travels from the angle of extreme low cost and hard living; so to an extent does Colin Thubron. Like the others, Bill Bryson focuses on understanding the people of a country and their typical characteristics but I have always assumed from rather more comfortable surroundings. But all good travel writers, however they approach their travels, illuminate not just the geographical surroundings they witness but so also the character of the people they meet, their history and the influences that have affected their lives. John Gimlette does this in his own unique way, setting out to talk to a complete cross-section of the population and drawing out the humour and the pathos of all he encounters.
For all his books he tends to visit locations less well travelled of late but no less interesting for that. He also travels slowly and writes perhaps more than others in depth about the particular country he is focussing on. His previous books have included travels to Paraguay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Guyana and Sri Lanka. His latest book, The Gardens of Mars, is focussed on Madagascar, the world’s fourth-largest island and one of the planet’s most fascinating and varied lands. Probably best known for its lemurs and extraordinary Baobab trees, it houses probably more endemic species totally unique to the country than anywhere else, which is rather in contrast to the makeup of its people whose origins are extremely diverse.
The joy of Gimlette’s writing is the depth of knowledge he acquires and passes on to the reader, in particular putting the historical context into what he witnesses from his 21st-century viewpoint. There is so much more to Madagascar than lemurs and Baobabs and, having read this book during lockdown, this island of contrasts has immediately risen to the top of my list of destinations to visit. Beware – John Gimlette’s wonderful writing, his dry sense of humour and, not least, his extensive research both on the ground and from his reading references can so easily entice you to follow up the book with a visit. But even for the armchair traveller this book will make you feel that you have spent some real quality time on the island. John Gimlette is one of our best living travel writers and this book is one of his best.