Book Review – No Baggage by Clara Bensen

Book Review – No Baggage by Clara Bensen

High concept travel writing is pretty much a must if you want to see your book in print these days. What does ‘high concept’ mean? That you should have a uniquely interesting premise as the basis for your book. If No Baggage is anything to go by then budding travel writers take note: you will most likely have to do something offbeat and truly original if you want to see your travelogue hit the shelves!

There is no doubt that what Bensen and her travel partner/sort-of-lover Jeff decided to do is unique. They opted to spend three weeks travelling through eight European countries (starting in Turkey, traversing through much of Eastern Europe, and finishing in the UK) with no reservations, no concrete plans – the countries they visited were largely decided on the hoof – and, oh yes, literally no baggage. That’s right, they wore the same clothes for three weeks, with the bare minimum of necessities to get by on.

It’s taking travelling light to a whole new level, and if you don’t admire them for that then you’re a very hard person to impress. ‘No Baggage’, naturally, also relates to our narrator’s own personal ‘baggage’: namely, that she had recently recovered from a breakdown, and was perhaps feeling a little fragile at the time she embarked on this trip with a man she had only met so recently that she didn’t even know his last name. Indeed, Bensen freely admits in the epilogue that she wrote this book as much to face her own personal demons as to document the travel experience.

And that, ultimately, is the deciding factor on how appealing you find No Baggage. Now, I really do want to stress again that Bensen is to be praised for her courage in undertaking a bold trip with a man she seems to be in love with but-its-too-early-to-know-for-sure, when she has recently endured a bout of mental illness. But it’s because of this that, for better or worse, Bensen’s emotional baggage is the backbone of the narrative; and for me, it’s for the worse.

The main issue for me is the disservice the narrative does to the actual places they are visiting and, to a lesser but still notable degree, the people they meet. Our intrepid couple are so busy hurtling from place to place at near-breakneck speed that instead of illuminating and evocative depictions of these eight countries, we get nicely phrased but skeletal soundbites. Whole countries are dispatched in two or three pages, whilst the introspective navel-gazing gets far more room.

Bensen is a talented wordsmith and a very well read young lady, but the trouble is she is overly keen to show this off (the classic hallmark of the neurotic self-doubter). The constant shoe-horning of erudite quotes, ranging from the magical realist novelist Gabriela Garcia Marquez to existential philosophers, gets wearing after a while. This is precisely because they feel grafted on to the text, rather than seamlessly blended in, and so come off as more pretentious than actually profound.

It’s difficult for me to totally hate on this book, though. There are flashes of pithy humour as our heroes – in a by-product of their spontaneous mode of travelling – find themselves in highly unusual situations, and sometimes the self-deprecation can be endearing rather than irritating: at one point, she declares that climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is a ‘radical’ thing to do. Well, I’ve climbed it; and I can tell you that, whilst it’s not easy and it is an achievement I’m proud of, it’s not really ‘radical’!

Jeff is an interesting character too. He comes across as a freewheeling Dean Moriarty (a literary reference that Bensen would no doubt approve of!) type, only he seems to be more caring about other people and therefore likeable. Of course, we see him through the lens of a besotted Bensen – he could also be read as feckless, manipulative and controlling (for the trip is his idea, and he seems to be the leader). Still, I would like to think that, unlike his On the Road equivalent, he would never actually leave people he professes to care about high and dry. His unpredictably inevitably maddens our narrator at times, but from a dramatic point of view, this does result in conflict and, with it, some entertaining exchanges between the two.

If you have a higher threshold for tedious cod-philosophising (“Travel is a constant state of suspension in spaces that are neither here nor there, but somewhere in between”) and self-doubt that borders on self-obsession than I do, then you will hopefully find more to enjoy in No Baggage than I did. But for me, it’s this prevailing narrative voice that unfortunately sabotages what could otherwise have been a very entertaining, intriguing and inspirational read.

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25 Comments

  • Sanne - Spend Life Traveling

    December 21, 2016 at 6:03 pm Reply

    Sounds like an interesting book. Not entirely sure if it would be for me either from what you describe and the idea of traveling through eight European countries in only three weeks doesn’t really work for me (the slow travel, getting to know local life in a place appeals to me more).
    Sanne – Spend Life Traveling recently posted…Trier: What to See & Do in Germany’s Oldest CityMy Profile

    • Joe

      December 21, 2016 at 6:45 pm Reply

      I know, right? It almost feels like they were doing some sort of competitive race against themselves, rather than immersing themselves in the countries they visited…

  • Parnashree Devi

    December 22, 2016 at 12:18 pm Reply

    Though I haven’t read the book . I find your review more interesting than the real topic of the book. You have penned down it beautifully. And yes , if there is rush to include everything , except the experiences in eight different countries , which I need a lot of attention from place, culture to lifestyle , then I am not sure if I wish to read this book .

    • Joe

      December 22, 2016 at 12:42 pm Reply

      Wow, thanks, that’s very kind of you to say so. One thing I’ll say for the author here – she is capable of beautiful prose herself, definitely better than mine! But yes, the story itself isn’t as good as it should be, and the rushing through is one big factor in this. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Luca

    December 22, 2016 at 1:36 pm Reply

    I didn’t know about this book, but after I read this review I’m sure I’ll never read it! It seems it contains everything I don’t enjoy in a book, and if you want to sell a “travel” story and you don’t care about deepen the experiences, the places, and the people you’re meeting, in my opinion that’s a fail.
    Luca recently posted…Taking a bus in Brazil. The wrong one…My Profile

    • Joe

      December 22, 2016 at 9:04 pm Reply

      She spends too much time navel gazing and pontificating about relationships. Fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but not what those of us wanting to read a travelogue are looking for; so it is, indeed, a fail for me!

  • Ami

    December 24, 2016 at 2:24 am Reply

    Sounds like a book that can trigger a lot of thinking. I like a little light reading – something that does not require me to ponder too much. Glad to get a gist out of what you have shared.
    Ami recently posted…Why is it a pleasure to visit Mauritius?My Profile

  • Joanna

    December 24, 2016 at 12:58 pm Reply

    I never heard about this book before. You are right, sometimes the narrative voice can temper with the storyline. I have recently read a book that was just like that. The plot was very interesting, about a journalist’s trips to Egypt, but I had to leave it after reading a few pages because the narrative voice was just not “speaking to me”.
    Joanna recently posted…London’s Christmas Lights and Winter WonderlandMy Profile

  • Samarpita Sharma

    December 26, 2016 at 7:20 am Reply

    This is unique! Never read travel bloggers reviewing books and I loved how detailed your review is. I think I will give the book a pass 🙂

  • Lee

    December 26, 2016 at 7:33 am Reply

    Interesting! I love to read books but im more into action and science theme

  • Jure

    December 26, 2016 at 11:28 am Reply

    That travelling for 3 weeks wearing the same clothes is somehow worthy of writing a book about kind of baffles me. I guess that it can be difficult to really stand out of the travel writing crowd by doing more or less regular stuff.

  • Venkat Ganesh

    December 26, 2016 at 11:55 am Reply

    Although the central theme of the book did not appeal to me what I really liked was your review of it. Also the fact that I’m more a slow traveller types and travel challenges/bucket list kind of travelogues do not interest me much.

    Given your review, I think I’ll trust your advice it’s not a must-read. But if I’m stuck at airport with nothing better to do I might flip through the pages until something that catches my fancy appears on the scene

  • Mri

    December 26, 2016 at 1:33 pm Reply

    Never read the book, but it does sound like an interesting concept to travel without luggage…though at what point is luggage considered luggage? Obviously, they’re wearing clothes, but are they allowed to have stuff in their pockets? What about food? Did they have to throw away everything they didn’t eat then and there?

    I get that a lot of this book was about the emotional baggage as you mentioned, but the physical such a cool concept to debate as well. (:

    • Joe

      December 26, 2016 at 4:23 pm Reply

      Yep, stuff in pockets was allowed, and she had a handbag to keep some essential supplies in! Food, as far as I can tell, was eaten on the fly/at host’s houses (she doesn’t reall go in to her culinary experiences). Agree that the ‘experiment’ is, in itself, an interesting idea that is sure to prvoke a range of reactions 🙂

  • Wanderlust Vegans

    December 26, 2016 at 5:06 pm Reply

    No Baggage sounds like an interesting book. If I come across it, I may pick up a copy. However, they are travelling a little faster than I would like myself, but to each their own.

  • Marlene Marques

    December 26, 2016 at 11:49 pm Reply

    First time I hear about this book. The concept seems interesting, but I feel that when you say that “whole countries are dispatched in two or three pages”, maybe this ss not the book for me. Either way, thanks for sharing your review.

  • Swayam Tiwari

    December 27, 2016 at 3:41 am Reply

    Ok, this comment is my review of your review. Paragraphs are short, so full marks to you. Diction-superb! Expression- arresting!
    By the way, I do not have a high threshold for “cod philosophising”. People travel a lot because of three reasons;
    1. They have a great inheritance.
    2. They are paid in kind to travel (fam trips)
    3. The professional ones travel because their job demands them to do.

    • Joe

      December 27, 2016 at 9:22 am Reply

      Thanks very much 🙂 The three reasons you list for people travelling a lot are all valid ones; however, I do feel there are people out there who make sacrafices to be able to do so as well. I personally know several people who have been on year-long/two-year round the world trips, and been able to do so via saving hard for years, leaving their careers, and securing work – everything from waiting on tables to picking fruit – whilst on the road to support themselves while travelling.

  • Travelpeppy

    December 27, 2016 at 4:05 am Reply

    Well we are not much of a book people but still like the review of your book.
    Great post.
    Travelpeppy recently posted…Best Places in South East Asia for Christmas & New Year DestinationsMy Profile

  • Indrani

    December 27, 2016 at 5:19 pm Reply

    Looks like a good read from your review. But did they really have to rush through?
    I mean so many countries in so few days.

    • Joe

      December 27, 2016 at 5:27 pm Reply

      It’s a good read in that it’s an interesting idea and well-written…but that’s about as good as it got for me.

  • Sia

    December 28, 2016 at 7:25 am Reply

    I’ve read an article a while back about this girl and the trip she made. It sounds like quite the interesting story that I would love to read. I totally agree that travel writing now has to be very unique and conceptual in order to stand out and impress.

  • Jesper, The Biveros Effect

    December 28, 2016 at 8:11 am Reply

    I do like the idea of traveling from one part of a continent to another. It is something with having a final destination to reach. I haven’t heard about this book before, but it might be good for a little inspiration even if it misses the more descriptive information about the visited places. 🙂
    Jesper, The Biveros Effect recently posted…Our Top 20 Destinations 2016My Profile

  • Adam, Bite of Iceland

    December 28, 2016 at 2:26 pm Reply

    Fantastic post 🙂 I didn’t have an idea about this book, but after I read your review I’m 100 % sure I’ll read it. Thanks for an inspiration.

  • Jitaditya Narzary

    December 28, 2016 at 7:22 pm Reply

    Interesting thoughts. It is not merely a book review but I lke the ponderngs about aspiring travel writers. In that sense it is a “high concept” book review. 😉

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