Deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous, In a Sunburned Country takes us on a grand tour of Australia. It's a place where interesting things happen all the time, from a Prime Minister lost — yes, lost — while swimming at sea, to Japanese cult members who may (entirely unnoticed) have set off an atomic bomb on their 500,000 acre property in the great western desert.
Australia is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. Its aboriginal people, a remote and mysterious race with a tragic history, have made it their home for millennia. And despite the fact that it is the most desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive of all inhabited continents, it teems with life. In fact, Australia has more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else: sharks, crocodiles, the planet's ten most deadly poisonous snakes, fluffy yet toxic caterpillars, sea shells that actually attack you, and the unbelievable box jellyfish (don't ask). The dangerous riptides of the sea and the sun-baked wastes of the outback both lie in wait for the unwary.
Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide. In a Sunburned Country offers the best of all possible introductions to what may well be the best of all possible nations. Even with those jellyfish.
With the Olympics approaching, books on Australia abound. Still, Bryson's lively take is a welcome recess from packaged, staid guides. The author of A Walk in the Woods draws readers in campfire-style, relating wacky anecdotes and random facts gathered on multiple trips down under, all the while lightening the statistics with infusions of whimsical humor. Arranged loosely by region, the book bounces between Canberra and Melbourne, the Outback and the Gold Coast, showing Bryson alone and with partners in tow. His unrelenting insistence that Australia is the most dangerous place on earth ("If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback") spins off dozens of tales involving jellyfish, spiders and the world's 10 most poisonous snakes. Pitfalls aside, Bryson revels in the beauty of this country, home to ravishing beaches and countless unique species ("80% of all that lives in Australia, plant and animal, lives nowhere else"). He glorifies the country, alternating between awe, reverence and fear, and he expresses these sentiments with frankness and candor, via truly funny prose and a conversational pace that is at once unhurried and captivating. Peppered with seemingly irrelevant (albeit amusing) yarns, this work is a delight to read, whether or not a trip to the continent is planned. First serial to Outside magazine; BOMC selection.