I bought Love of Country quite a while ago and read the first few chapters when another book drew my attention. Finally, this week I came back to it.
Telling the story of Madeleine Bunting’s lifelong connection to the Hebrides, I was excited to read some travel writing about a location that is a little closer to home. Beginning by explaining that she has always felt a connection to the Hebrides and that her journeys are a kind of home-going, this book instantly makes you think about your own sense of home and nationality.
With a knack for vivid description, Bunting draws you into the book as though it is a novel. There are beautiful locations, stories of quirks of history, interesting people and events. And so much about the United Kingdom that I never knew. Each island has its own identity and history and a connection to the wider history of what it means to be British. This book taught me a lot about why British politics is the way it is right now, it explained the anglocentric view of Britain that still dominates today.
I really enjoyed the first two thirds of the book, but unfortunately there are a few problems with this book. Unlike other travel books I have recently read, such as Names For the Sea by Sarah Moss, this book didn’t have much of a narrative. Bunting explores these islands over many years, visiting with family members, returning for more research. And although her family history suggests a close connection to this part of the world, when reading the book this felt second to the historical narrative she was trying to construct. Although very interesting, I couldn’t get past the amount of historical and geographical detail, I felt too much like I was reading a textbook rather than an entertaining travel book. This makes the book challenging and I think many would give up, as I felt tempted to do when the book crossed the line and became more of an academic text. Another problem is repetitions. Perhaps unavoidable when writing about so many islands, but the beautiful descriptions lost their effectiveness once they had been repeated numerous times and the histories began to blur.
What this book does get right is its anecdotes, its connection to the people still living on the islands and the pearls of wisdom about nationhood and identity. I feel, though, that it could have been edited down a lot and that there should have been a stronger narrative arch woven throughout. I know this can be hard with nonfiction, but I feel that where travel writing becomes truly gripping and loveable, becomes the type of book I want to read again, is where you feel as though you know the writer and have been on a journey with them by the end. Unfortunately, for me, this book just didn’t manage to do that. I didn’t feel as though I knew Bunting by the end, I felt as though I had read a series of essays rather than a whole travel narrative.
Still worth a read for its description and the very interesting historical insights, but not as entertaining as it could have been!