In an interview with Erica Wagner in The Observer recently, Colin Thubron remarked that people who liked his novels were “indifferent to the travel books, and the people who love the travel books don’t even know I’m a novelist”. I did know he was a novelist, and a much-praised one, but though I’ve got half a dozen of his travel books on the shelves behind my desk I’ve never ready any of the novels. Maybe it’s time I caught up.
His latest, the eighth, Night of Fire, weaves together the stories of six tenants of a seaside boarding house that’s been turned into flats. Reviewing it in The Times last weekend, Melissa Katsoulis noted that Thubron’s novels and travelogues “do not seem to spring from disparate parts of the imagination but rather enjoy a symbiotic relationship that, as he matures [he’s 77], results in increasingly fascinating work”.
Thubron himself, writing a piece for The Guardian — in the travel section — revealed that his only venture to sub-Saharan Africa had been made while he was researching the novel. It was to Malawi, to a refugee camp. “I had planned to spend a week here, but this voyeurism disturbed me, and I managed only three days. I could never have understood the detail and feel of the camp — its brutally cramped quarters, its heart-breaking permanence — from reading or the internet. Mentally and emotionally, it was vital to be there.”