Friday, 2 December 2011

Review of 'At Home' by Bill Bryson

It's a while since Bill Bryson has written a travel book, but he certainly wanders far and wide with this one, though he never leaves his own house.

The answer to this paradox is in the structure of the book. Bryson packages his short history of private life into a sort of rambling tour around the rooms of his home, a mid 19th Century former Church of England rectory in a Norfolk village. (This American writer has lived for many years in England.) He uses the function or former function of each room, or sometimes its contents, as his starting-point for a wide-ranging, leisurely and digressive examination of the way our domestic lives have been shaped by innovators of the past. Many of those had enough idiosyncracies and obsessions for our guide to spin humour from, in much the same way he does with characters he meets along the way in his travelogues. Here he is not taking us along the Appalachian Trail or for a walk in the woods, but across time and continents, drifting pleasurably, with occasional swoops and dives, so that we feel sometimes like the boy being taken for a magic ride by the Snowman, where walls are no barrier and there's no particular schedule to worry about.

And that's the feel of the book - an engaging adventure, a fun exploration in the company of an amiable, cherubic narrator - if not the Snowman perhaps a jolly, anecdotal uncle. Don't look for structured history in Bryson's work, still less for philosophy, as some reviewers seem to have expected and been disappointed not to find - these are not Bryson's style. He's a dipper-in, a snapper-up of trifles, a jackdaw for twinkling facts.

Bill Bryson

The only further gem it would be a delight to have seen revealed by the author as he guides us through his home would concern the daily detail of his own living there, and his family's, but he keeps that particular private life out of these pages, and we can't really blame him for that in these prying days.

The tour through the house is anyway nothing more than a convenient device, and Bryson cheerfully drops it in several places when he can't map out a starting-point for what he wants to include precisely from the room we are in.

The whole tour is so discursive that I get the feeling he could have taken us back to the beginning and started again with a whole different set of interesting things to say. I'd happily sign up for that tour too; Bill Bryson is very good company.


  1. Sounds like a really good read, David. I'll have to have a look!

  2. Good idea, Emma; as long as you don't mind plenty of discursiveness - Bill seems to go where the mood takes him,which I like.

  3. While not a topic I would ordinarily set aside time to explore, I always read anything Bryson writes. He's like John McPhee... if the topic doesn't thrill me, the writing does. I am eager to place this book in my must read stack.

  4. I think that gets exactly his appeal, Rita.

  5. Ruud Meulenbroek4 December 2011 at 10:05

    Just bought the book and read it within a couple of days. Bill Bryson is such a gifted storyteller that he could easily fill a couple of pages with a description of him taking a trip to the loo, while still keeping you captivated.

    Luckily in this book he chooses far more interesting topics. It contains some real eye-openers about daily live before and during the industrial revolution. Makes you realize how far we have come.

  6. Thanks for your excellent perspective, Ruud.