‘Far & Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change, Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years’ is Andrew Solomon’s collection of travel writing in countries undergoing huge political, social and cultural change. I really enjoyed his masterfully perceptive book Far From the Tree which explores the multiple facets of identity and difference. His intimate reporting on vast subjects is very compelling and it is hard to think of a more open-minded and generous travelling companion than Solomon.
Overall, the 28 essays collected in ‘Far & Away’ are a mixed bag and could easily have been cut down to about 20. Organised largely chronologically, the early articles written for design magazine Harpers and Queen all focus on the work of avant-garde artists in Soviet Russia, China, South Africa and Taipei in response to huge political upheaval in the late 1980s and 1990s. Unless you are specifically interested in the artists’ work then these chapters are a bit of a slog for a more general reader.
However, once the collection becomes less singularly focused, there is much to enjoy in the rest of this hugely diverse book. The best articles tend to be the most personal ones such as Solomon’s trip to his ancestral home of Romania and the introduction in which he explains how he came to love travelling. Other excellent pieces have been adapted from his 2001 book about depression and mental health ‘The Noonday Demon’ and the articles about his experiences in Cambodia and Greenland are as engaging as anything in ‘Far From the Tree’, extracts of which are also featured in the chapters on Rwanda and Bali.
The explanatory notes accompanying the articles are helpful in clarifying the context at the time and what, if anything, has changed since he visited and wrote about each place. Solomon immerses himself in local culture wherever he goes and is very conscious of how he is perceived abroad as a gay, white, American, male journalist. As demonstrated in ‘Far From the Tree’, he is exceptionally good at extracting fascinating stories from the wide variety of people he meets and exploring them with real empathy and compassion. His fervent argument that most of the world’s problems could be solved if everyone travelled more might seem rather optimistic but it is hard to deny that such experiences can be valuable and enlightening if approached as a traveller rather than as a tourist.
Many of the articles in ‘Far & Away’ are interesting and thoughtfully written but I think ‘Far From the Tree’ remains Solomon’s most accomplished work and is more consistent in terms of quality. Many thanks to Scribner for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.