Embarking on what she sees of as a ‘gap year’ for wrinklies, the ‘adventure’ well planned in advance. As you would expect of a woman in her 50’s. Even adventures have to be properly organised and you get the sense that Carroll was much more thoughtful than your average gap year traveller. She eases herself gently into the experience though she admits to feeling out of her depth and comfort zone almost immediately. She starts with family connections in Australia, then travels in New Zealand with a friend’s mother (I still laugh every time I think of Cath’s catch phrase Good to Know) before heading into the unknown – where she has already booked up guides. So she is not truly alone for most of the first six months. By which time she’s ready for it.
The external and internal journey are juxtaposed throughout and emotionally she explores the caution, the fear the sense of loss and longing, the feelings engendered by isolation and fellowship. Throughout the book Carroll wrestles with the difference between being a tourist and being a traveller and ultimately resolves this issue. The difference of pace is one thing but there’s much more to it than that.
Reflecting on this book, it’s the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of her approach where the humour lies for me. I never found Bill Brysen funny. I find Jo Carroll funny – perhaps because there’s more to recognise. I may be more her target market – women of a certain age. All of which goes to confirm that the opening of digital publishing via self pubbed ebooks has benefits.
Her travels are also interestingly informative about cultures and customs I have never, and will never encounter. Nepal and the customs of death was really interesting to me. Her description of her outsider status and the confusion that engenders is familiar. I spent some time in China in 2000 and I felt like I was a ghost watching a world that I didn’t really exist in. India isn’t a place that’s interested me, but it was interesting to learn about it from Carroll, even if she reconfirmed all the reasons I’ve never wanted to go there. Her Asian travels continue from from Singapore to various parts of Malaysia and Bangkok then into Cambodia. She continues to provide unique insights into that world.
After 7 months she goes home briefly for the birth of her first grandson. This provides a break both in the narrative and in the experience and when she returns nothing is the same. Because quite soon afterwards, it all goes horribly wrong. Unpredictably, or perhaps too horribly predictably SOMETHING HAPPENS. I’m not going to say what, but a spanner is firmly thrown in Jo Carroll’s work and this elevates the entirety of the book.
One lesson learned by Carroll is that whether a tourist or a traveller, you are only passing through, you never get the chance to fully engage with other people. You really are ships that pass in the night. And I get the sense that Carroll wants, or was hoping for, more than this out of the experience. She tries to get this sense of permanence, against all the odds, in Cambodia. I’ll spoil the narrative if I give too much away, but suffice it to say that despite all the problems that beset her, she feels it imperative to ‘pay back’ and ‘thank’ those with whom she shared the most intense experiences.
You can’t dismiss this as simply a book written by and for ‘women of a certain age,’ but I think they will get the most from it. It reminds us that seeking life changing experiences is not just the province of the young and beautiful and that people other than white middle-class males making a living out of travel writing have a right to comment on the world. That their experience, while different, is equally valuable, equally interesting. Over the Hill and Far Away is both different and differently interesting. I have no desire to travel the world. I’d like Jo Carroll to keep on doing it for me.
Reviewed by Cally Phillips
Over the Hill is available in Kindle format
Find out more about Jo Carroll here