Book review: Once Upon a Time There Was A Traveller Edited by Kate Pullinger

‘Life is a journey, not a destination,’ declared the 19th century American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson and what better way to ‘armchair travel’ than in the company of some of the UK’s finest women writers?

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 29th August 2013, 10:00 am
Once Upon a Time There Was A Traveller Edited by Kate Pullinger
Once Upon a Time There Was A Traveller Edited by Kate Pullinger

Virago Press and the Asham Award, the foremost prize for stories by women, have put together a dazzling and thought-provoking assortment of short travel tales which guarantee to send you to places you’ve never been before.

Asham House, the Sussex home of Virginia Woolf, one of England’s greatest writers, has been the source and support of the celebrated Asham Award since 1995.

The award, offered every two years, was set up by the Asham Literary Endowment trust in 1995 to encourage and promote new writing. It is open to women over 18 of any nationality, provided they are resident in the United Kingdom and have not previously had a novel or a book of short stories published.

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The winners and runners-up are published alongside some of the best known women writers of Virago Press anthologies. This year’s collection of debut authors, judged by Helen Dunmore, Sara Wheeler and Virago’s Lennie Goodings, also includes the work of the late English feminist author Angela Carter and a new story by established writer Susie Boyt.

And there is plenty of meat to feast on in this eclectic and highly original prize-winning assortment which takes us by plane, train, rail and even via a school run on some soul-searching journeys and to some unexpected destinations.

Whether it’s a white South African widow on a dry, sun-drenched road to a dark and devastating discovery, a woman’s airport meeting with US soldiers bound for Afghanistan or two eccentric actresses reunited in an old folks’ home, these are tales to shock, amaze and confound.

Some people are running away and some are coming home, there are three mischievous blind men on an outing to Coventry Cathedral, a young wife fleeing her foreign marriage, memories of childhood journeys and a mission to save a life.

Dolores Pinto’s Where Life Takes You, a tale of longing, loss and learning what home is, features a young woman who has somehow ended up in the Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby where she doesn’t belong and where she feels everyone is looking at her.

‘The light here is brutal,’ she finds. Cowed by radiance, she wants to travel back to the comfort of London ‘to walk unnoticed between tall buildings’ and wake up in her bedroom in Pimlico with ‘its sloping ceiling and dark corners.’

These are powerful, impressively crafted stories which use the theme of travel in a variety of imaginative, emotive and inventive ways, delivering serious messages about the all-too-often tragic unpredictability of life’s journey and helping us to see the world in a very different and surprising new light.

‘Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends,’ claims the wise American author and poet Maya Angelou.

(Virago, paperback, £8.99)