2 out of 4 stars
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A Slice of Chile is a non-fiction book detailing Dr Hannan's experiences with his wife in Chile and other South American locations. Described as a “sabbatical sojourn”, their activities were not just your typical touristy excursions, but also included work at the local university and other more professional business. This is one of the aspects of the book that makes it both unique and frustrating: these experiences are likely to be very different from the ones you get in most travel books, but how many people are actually interested in this side of their adventure? It's an issue that came up throughout my reading.
At first, the writing is quite hard to get into. Dr Hannan writes in lengthy sentences, which are not always well controlled, and uses some academic language and concepts in these early chapters. This might suit his professional identity, but it is a bit distancing for the reader. There are also detailed explanations of Brownian motion and a random product associated with kidney disease, which isn't necessarily relevant or of interest to the audience, and it delays us getting into the travel portion of the book. Thankfully, this tendency fades as the book continues, but some readers might be put off by this early section.
Once their travels start in earnest, the book becomes more interesting; however, there are major structural issues. Dr Hannan mentions that a lot of the chapters started originally as blog posts, and you can see how they would suit that structure. Unfortunately, they are not always edited together well enough to work as a book, and the writer's decision to focus on his very subjective experiences of work conferences, meeting friends, and travel arrangements makes for dull reading when lumped together. We need less attention given to these personal anecdotes and more to exploring the country and its inhabitants, as this would help his experiences feel relevant to his audience. Even when he does talk about specific excursions or great meals out, he doesn't always specify where they were or which restaurant they visited, so there isn't enough detail to build up a picture for the reader. The book didn't teach me anything more about these countries or inspire me to visit, which seems like a significant failing. The photos don't help either, as they are much more like the holiday snaps your parents might show you, rather than pictures that illustrate the country and its culture.
The book works best when Dr Hannan focuses on the country, its inhabitants and the more universal experiences he had there. There are interesting insights into what it's like to be in a place very prone to earthquakes, for instance, and the section towards the end where they visit the Atacama desert contains the most evocative and lively description in the whole book. However, these genuine insights into South America are few and far between, with more time given to monotonous stories of lost keys, travel stresses, and frequent encounters with other Australians. There isn't even a real conclusion, somewhere for Dr Hannan to sum up what he learnt from the experience and to bring everything together. Again, this absence might have made sense within the blog format, but leaves the book feeling unfinished.
I give A Slice of Chile 2 out of 4 stars, because there are some interesting chapters, but too much filler to make it a consistently good read. A travel book needs to keep its focus on the external world – the smells, sights and sounds that make a place unique – not the purely personal experiences, as this is what allows the reader to feel like they're discovering these places, too. Instead, I came away knowing far more about the writer and his life than I did about the places he visited. Perhaps the problem is the title: it's less A Slice of Chile than A Slice of Terry and his Wife. This book makes a nice holiday souvenir for Dr Hannan and his family, but I'm not sure that it holds much interest for the rest of us.
A Slice Of Chile
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