“We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go,” says Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel. In her collection of short stories Forgetting English Midge Raymond comes close to answering those questions.
Each story is set in a different global location, from Maui to Antarctica to Tokyo to Tanzania. The characters are in transition, fleeing empty apartments, lost jobs, broken marriages. Their new surroundings entice them to reach out, act in new ways, essentially reinvent themselves.
In these stories, people travel for various reasons—to visit family, for business, on safari or vacation, a move. They meet other expatriates, occasionally locals, sometimes sharing their pasts and sometimes choosing to reveal only what fits a certain new look of themselves. The stories are haunting and lovely. In one, the expat is fleeing a suicide attempt, only to have her closest Taiwanese friend and language helper end up killing herself. In another, a woman moves with her brother, a struggling alcoholic, to New Zealand, where she realizes that she can’t live his life and will have to start living her own. In yet another, a woman confronts a secret from her past and finds her husband confronting her with a secret from their present. No one emerges unchanged. Travel provides a means to confront that which has previously been hidden, been ignorable or concealable but is no longer.
Raymond is a tantalizing author, giving glimpses of life lived far beyond mere birthplaces. Her descriptions of a tent in Antarctica or a pool on Maui are tangible, although she is more concerned with her characters’ stories than with giving us a travelogue. Still, each story has a definite geography, a sense of place that serves as background and catalyst to her characters’ development.
Forgetting English is an enticing look at travel as a metaphor for change and growth, while at the same time introducing realistic and interesting characters. It’s really well written and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Elizabeth loves to travel and loves books about travel. Read more of her own journeys at her blog Planet Nomad.