Book Review: Travelling in the Dark

Title: Travelling in the Dark
Author: Emma Timpany
Genre: Fiction
ISBN: 9781912054480

My Rating: 5 out of 5

I received this book as an Advance Reader Copy from Fairlight Books via NetGalley.

On the surface, Travelling in the Dark by Emma Timpany is a story about a young woman named Sarah travelling back to her home in New Zealand for the first time with her son after years of estrangement from family and the end of her rocky marriage. The narrative is engaging, and the author’s choice to alternate the narrative between past and present with each chapter builds the emotional tension, rather than feeling like a gimmick. In a way, the book reads a bit like a travelogue — the imagery brings New Zealand to life as Sarah sees the places she spent her childhood through the eyes of her young son. But Sarah’s inner struggle takes center stage, and by the time I had finished the novella, I found myself wrought with sadness, empathy, and the need to reread the novella (which I did). Sarah’s story drives home the impact that one’s early life can have on the rest of our decisions and our ability to perceive and navigate the world in adulthood.

I loved that the themes contained in the title (travel and darkness) permeate the entire work — within every chapter — and influence how it can be interpreted. It was the title that I couldn’t let go of after finishing Travelling in the Dark.

Clearly Sarah’s life (as is the same for all of us) is a journey. The story alternates between vignettes from her childhood in an often negative and abusive environment and the present day and her struggles to relate to her son and cope with where life has taken her. Sarah is also actually travelling in the book. She leaves New Zealand in search of an escape as a young woman, landing herself first in Greece and then England. As an adult, she travels back to New Zealand, taking the scenic route (sometimes unintentionally) with her son to visit her childhood friend Patrick.

As Sarah physically moves through the book in what ends up being a prolonged round trip, the idea of darkness (along with color and light) stands out to create contrast in her experiences. All of Timpany’s descriptions paint vivid mental pictures, and while Sarah is clearly surrounded by a world in full color, much of her own existence and perception are veiled in darkness. To travel in the dark implies a few themes, all of which I felt carried strongly through the text. The novella even starts with a statement that, more or less, darkness is just beyond Sarah’s window as she flies at night. The absence of light is often contrasted with the colorful descriptions of her surroundings — from general features within nature to specific eye colors. The overly colorful descriptions juxtapose with the sad and on-edge (even…dark) tone of the novella’s content, which deals with themes of rejection, sadness, and the fact that eventually we all have to return to face the reality of what we have tried to escape.

Darkness encompasses situations that are tragic, and many of Sarah’s own experience qualify as such. She suffers at the hand of quite a few people who she genuinely loves. Darkness also indicates a level of ignorance, which Sarah demonstrated several times in her youth as she misjudged how she fit in with her family, what it meant to have or be a good friend, and whether or not a person could reciprocate love in the same way. As Sarah travels back to New Zealand, much of her ignorance fades or has faded away, yet Timpany does not let us come out of the dark as readers completely, either. We are left to wonder a bit at the end and to consider her story as we continue on our own paths.

Timpany’s mastery of language to create thematic elements, set the tone, and immerse the reader in the text leaves one travelling in the dark right along with Sarah. This story is one that will stick with me for quite a while, and I am happy to have read it.

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