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.