‘I devoured most of it in a single, long, bewitched session’

Henry Hyde – 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Bill Bryson ever since he made me spray cappuccino all over Notes from a Small Island in a central Brighton cafe ten years ago, and fans of his will certainly enjoy Roz Morris’ Not Quite Lost.

But that’s where the similarity ends, because whereas Bryson builds us up for the belly laughs and buys us a bourbon afterwards, the Morris approach is more poetic, quirky, whimsical, perhaps even melancholic at times and speaks more to the soul than the belly. Moreover, most of us will have memories of the often rain-sodden excursions and exhausting journeys to less-than-luxurious destinations that Morris describes in many of the stories here, bringing to mind the cry of bored children everywhere: “Are we there yet?”

This is partly, of course, because Morris is British, rather than an avuncular, if occasionally outspoken, American. Her prose is light, floating on gossamer wings as she surveys the wistful landscape or explores the whispering walls of an ancient building as it reveals its past to her sensitive ears. In this sense, it is not just Morris and husband Dave who are literally ‘not quite lost’, hovering on the frayed edge between one road atlas page and the next, but the places too, often derelict or neglected, that she rescues from oblivion by committing their stories to black and white.

Her description of people and places is often uncannily accurate and frequently moving — the story of her family house, skilfully interweaving the fate of family and bricks and mortar alike, had tears rolling down my cheeks. She has a knack of making us want to follow in her footsteps and explore these places for ourselves, to look through the same windows at the mist-shrouded fields and climb the same dizzying stairs to emerge to a sun-bathed cityscape. She meets and commits to memory — ours, as well as hers — tour guides, shop keepers and love-struck ramblers with humanity and affection. Even the car they travel in becomes a character, apparently possessed by some low-grade mechanical poltergeist.

The book is not without regular amusement, providing light to the occasional shade. Her portrait of patient husband Dave, the dutiful, patient and occasionally sarcastic passenger as they explore the untrodden highways and byways in the middle of nowhere, frequently in rain, fog or even earthquakes, is delightful, an insight into a marriage — the ceremony of which was conducted in a language which neither of them understood, as you will find out — that is clearly a deeply affectionate partnership.

This contrasts with fascinating revelations about the author’s own life, ghostwriter to (on pain of death) unnamed A-listed authors, literary novelist who insists on writing books that traditional publishers claim they can’t sell (so she publishes them — successfully — herself), and sometime TV and movie extra and exercise fanatic. Her story about participating in a major ‘flashmob’ event was both exhilarating and, again, moving.

A collection of journal entries and anecdotes, all of which, remarkably, are true, it is difficult to categorise this work. You could say it is ideal reading for the smallest room in the house, but it is so much more than that and I devoured most of it in a single, long, bewitched session. By turns intriguing, educational and always witty and insightful, I’ve never read a book quite like this before, but if Morris were to write another, I would certainly do so again.

Beautifully written and with a cover reminiscent of those wonderful railway posters of yore, I have no hesitation in recommending Not Quite Lost by Roz Morris.

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