Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country was an exceedingly interesting read and covered a lot of ground with a healthy dose of humour and excellent storytelling. The overarching journey that is undertaken in the book is essentially a multi-phase road trip, which covers many of the major cities along with some lesser known parts of Australia, or as he calls it the ‘real’ Australia. While he is on this journey, Bryson shares with us some historical context, personal stories and thoughts on a variety of topics ranging from the places he visited and the adventures he experienced, to aboriginal and colonial history in Australia. However, the theme that stood out to me the most is his experience with all the potential dangers, which seem to be ever present when one lives in Australia.
At various points in the book Bryson points out the ever lurking danger, which is often unseen until it is too late. I got a taste of this experience at the beginning of the book when he is describing an encounter with a “[a] bluebottle… know elsewhere as a Portuguese man-of-war ”(Bryson, 17). The Australians in the story are unimpressed by the sighting and they describe the potential pain of brushing against the bluebottle as “a bit uncomfortable (17)”, whereas Bryson, after doing some research, describes the potential pain as “agony ”(17). Even more worrisome, Bryson wasn’t even aware of the proximity of the danger when it first presented. “Perhaps it was the oxygen deprivation, but I was rather lost in my own world when Deidre grabbed my arm just before I was about to go under again and said in a husky tone, ‘Look out! There’s a bluey.’”(16). Another example of a danger Bryson gives, which is usually unseen, is the saltwater crocodile. He describes it as “a creature so perfectly engineered to kill that it has scarcely changed in 200 million years ”(129). Bryson proceeds to explain the true horror of these creatures, which is their capability to unexpectedly and swiftly attack. “The chronicles of crocodile killings are full of stories of people standing in a few inches of water or sitting on a bank or strolling along an ocean beach when suddenly the water splits and, before they can even cry out, much less enter into negotiations, they are carried away for leisurely devouring ”(130).
Before reading this book, I was vaguely aware of all the dangerous animals, which existed in Australia, but they were never really in the forefront of my mind. Additionally, I believe that I wasn’t really concerned about any of the animals, because Australians seem to project an intense air of indifference toward these dangers, which Bryson eloquently points out in the beginning of his book while describing the nonchalant vocabulary Australians use in the face of danger. “It occurred to me that Australians are so surrounded with danger that they have evolved an entirely new vocabulary to deal with it”(17). However, after reading Bryson’s account, I definitely share more of his concern now than I did before. I especially feel the presence of his words creeping into my mind when thinking about my first surfing lesson I will be taking next week. Bryson having made the threat real, through a familiar tone during his storytelling, almost forces me to have second or third thoughts about swimming in the ocean. Yet, he also gave me hope that the Australian surfing instructor will project enough confidence in my safety that I will forget about my worries while I am in the water.
Bryson, Bill. In a Sunburned Country. Broadway Books, 2001.