These twenty stories are about people displaced: Australians wandering Asia in search of something. It might all be fiction, but it has the ring of truth. ‘She gave up writing straightforward accounts of her journeys years ago. She has surrendered herself to her love of fiction.’ This is Maria, an ageing backpacker washed up amongst twentysomething stoners in Vang Vieng, Laos. Blake is recovering from an unlikely war injury, and finds solace with Monica, who needs to keep moving on. June is recently separated and gathering the courage to tell her daughter. In ‘Learning Indonesian’, the repressed narrator finds a foil in a leering staffer from her guesthouse.
Whether it’s Thailand, Indonesia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Brunei or Malaysia, Castagna has clearly been there and taken everything in. The stories drop the reader straight into the tea garden, the beach, the temple town. The ten-page tales fly by like a week-long winter getaway, the protagonists finding renewal amid the paradisiacal surrounds of Luang Prabang or Bali or the Cameron Highlands. Others, fleeing lives of suburban ennui, seek significance amid the horror-strewn landscapes of Cambodia or Vietnam.
It’s a reminder that most of us travel to suit ourselves – these characters are not under the illusion that they are at home abroad. The landscape is a canvas, a photograph, a page in a diary. Agnes, the protagonist in ‘Complete’, ‘is perpetually struck by the feeling that there is something missing from her life that she will find in some other time and space.’ She finds it in Phuket, of all places, at the hands of a cross-dressing childhood friend.
The book is also about the random encounters of the road, the fellow wanderers who share a tea, a special chocolate milkshake, a bed, before moving on. The characters might be young or middle aged, male or female, dissipated or innocent, but they are rendered sympathetically. And they all seem to have something in common. The sense of place also has a textured consistency. This combination of pattern and range feels like travel itself, the surprising experiences always filtered through our own familiar eyes.
Fictional travel writing is an underutilised genre, and Castagna has hit the mark with this collection. If the writing sometimes feels youthful, it’s because the writer is, well, young. The reader senses the talent building like a storm over a tropical island.