Throwback Thursday Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island audiobook cover.A teacup and spoon sit on a blue backdrop. The tealeaves in the almost-empty cup form the shape of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 10 hrs 29 mins.

Notes from a Small Island was the first Bill Bryson book to bring him to my attention, when my Dad read the book in the 90s and recommended it. Somehow, despite listening to several other Bryson audiobooks, I never actually got around to this one - though it has always been the book I think of as his most famous.

So, it was with high expectations that I snapped up the audiobook (narrated by William Roberts, who did a marvellous job with A Walk in the Woods), and settled in to enjoy Bryson's trademark observational humour; full of warmth, wit, and candour.

Except, unlike his other books, this one felt rather spiky and dated. Whether this book really is different in tone to the others or I am more aware of its flaws I cannot say, but as I have (recently) enjoyed plenty of his other works, I would suggest it is the former. The exaggerated, grotesque references to the obese family in a restaurant were uncomfortable, as were the repeated 'lads mag' style comments about women and their habits, all delivered in an "am I right fellas?!" style. It all felt very clumsy and of its time, in a way that I have never felt about one of his books before. In fact, they usually strike me as quite the opposite, having an almost timeless quality despite the changing landscape he traverses, because the themes and emotions behind key observations and experiences are so universal.

Consequently, I did not enjoy this one as much as the others. There were still funny passages, and overall it was entertaining, but mostly it just felt like some of the B&B's he stayed in throughout his trip; cheap, tired, disappointing, and (like one of the hotel baths in particular) better if you don't think too much about what you're getting into and scrub hard when you're done.

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