Before commencing this entry, I should first declare an interest: this reviewer is a good friend of author Helen Nicholl, having worked with her for several years during her time co-managing War on Want charity bookshop in south Belfast. But such was the fun to be had in reading her warm, witty, often quite poignant debut novel ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’, that I couldn’t resist writing a review of it for this blog. If it opens me up to a slightly higher degree of bias than usual, then that seems a worthwhile exception to make on this occasion.
It’s more or less love at first sight for Johanna van Heerden when she meets Albert Morrow while perusing the shelves of the Good Intentions bookshop. Striking up a fast connection, the couple quickly discover a shared love of travel and appreciation of ancient archaeological sites, and happily start journeying together to various places of interest throughout County Down. But complications loom on the horizon, not least the misgivings of Johanna’s friend Rita, Albert’s troublesome ex Carmel, and the ambiguous reliability of Albert himself.
A huge part of the enjoyment of this novel is its evocation of place. It’s immensely refreshing to read a work of fiction set in Northern Ireland that has little to do with the Troubles or any of the other less-than-flattering associations the region enjoys/endures. Instead, here, in the form of ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’, it’s the setting of a rich, funny, modern romantic comedy, one that fulfils all the expectations and tropes of the genre, and yet isn’t without teeth. Pleasingly, it focuses on an older, worldly-wise couple (particularly Johanna), who have lived long enough to appreciate the absurdities of life and what to avoid, and yet are still subject to its passions. The pair’s romance is well-written, taking off early on, and remaining believable throughout, the reader invited so intimately into Johanna’s head and her love for Albert that, when crises between them finally arise, we feel for her acutely. Johanna is a sharp, pithy, well-sketched character, her humour and personality not a little borrowed from Nicholl herself, and the book is packed full of fun little allusions to the author’s own acquaintances and time spent volunteering (this reviewer even gets a nod to his home town).
As suggested already, the story makes rich use of its Northern Irish backdrop, from the student bustle of Botanic Avenue, to the idyllic suburbs of Holywood, to the slopes of the Mourne Mountains and expanse of Strangford Lough. Johanna and Albert’s travels to all the recommended dolmens and cairns in in-story guidebook ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Ancient County Down’ makes the reader feel like hopping in a car with a companion and setting off on expeditions of one’s own, and their gentle quests provide a lovely, quiet structure to the novel that soothes and reassures- at least until the problems of real life begin to intrude. The supporting characters earn their stripes too, with glamorous best friend Rita and amorous landlord Sticky Wicket among the most memorable (the latter providing a brilliantly funny twist/punchline at the end of one chapter), while smarmy ex-husband Socrates and eccentric sister Frederika round out the cast nicely. The fictional pubs and shops of Johanna’s Belfast, meanwhile, provide a fun exercise in trying to match their real-life counterparts, for anyone who knows the city well.
Highly readable and laced through with wit, the book flies past, so that it really is almost a shame to have to come to the end- this reviewer predicts many re-reads to come over the years. If there is perhaps one, minor structural issue to give pause, it’s the surprising absence of Albert from a very considerable chunk of the story late on, something that, for me, does ultimately work, but perhaps only just. For some readers, enjoying the novel primarily for the journeys and adventures of the central couple up until this point, the issue could potentially jar.
At the launch of the novel, Nicholl expressed her wish to produce a local piece of fiction that went beyond the tired, disheartening associations of the Troubles, the Titanic and the province’s ‘horrible politicians’. This book is indeed the perfect antidote to the grim-and-gritty crime fiction one might have associated with Belfast and Northern Ireland in decades gone by. Enjoyable, humorous and uplifting, this romcom for the no-nonsense, middle-aged, but still-full-of-zest-for-life crowd is an example of the sort of diversity Northern Irish literature and fiction is hopefully on the cusp of embracing. While there undoubtedly still remains a place for the likes of Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville or Brian McGilloway in local bookshops, this reviewer, for one, hopes to see more work like ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’ joining them on the shelves. A lot more.
Gentle, humorous, but often with fangs, ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’ is an uplifting and rewarding read, shot through with the engaging personality and voice of its author.