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Imagine if you will a novel that combines the fashion savvy of "Sex
and The City" with the brassy British sense of humor in BRIDGET
JONES'S DIARY. Now, just for fun, throw in an Agatha Christie
mystery, a Rough Guide travel book, and a steamy romantic passage
or two from a Barbara Cartland novel. The result? BACKPACK by Emily

Tansy, Barr's first person narrator, is a pretentious over-indulger
in drugs and alcohol, who seems to care very little about anyone
other than herself and her select group of equally snobbish and
self-absorbed friends. In the hands of another author, she could
very easily develop into a highly unlikable character, but in
Barr's hands, just the opposite is true. There's something very
appealing about Tansy that draws in the reader. Maybe it's an
underlying, albeit puzzling, sense of potential that is so

When her mother, an alcoholic, dies, leaving Tansy with a small
inheritance and a half brother she hadn't known existed, Tansy
plans an escape, a holiday. She and her fat --- but very
attractive, she assures us --- on again, off again boyfriend decide
to visit Vietnam, "a chic destination," where she expects to
"assume languid attitudes and (meet) intriguing strangers." Shortly
before their scheduled departure, he backs out, and she braves the
trip on her own, dressed in "Asia-wear." (One senses Tansy hasn't
packed light for her trip to enlightenment.)  

In an exotic continent away from home, Tansy adheres for a period
to her past habits --- primarily looking down her coke-seeking nose
at all she encounters. Barr transitions Tansy very subtly into the
backpacker that she so despises. It's a slow process, and one that
even while witnessing it Tansy can't entirely accept. Ditching her
London attire for the loose cotton apparel of her fellow travelers,
she stubbornly notes, "Wearing the clothes doesn't make me a
backpacker. Of course it doesn't." She slips later when she says,
"Everyone hates backpackers because of their image, but some of us
are all right. I correct myself. Some of them." But the
transformation does occur, much to her delight and to the reader's
as well.

Despite missing her snooty friends, Tansy becomes chummy with
several Aussies and other Europeans. Thrown in the mix is Max, an
unexpected affair, who helps to prove that Tansy can indeed love
more than just cocaine and herself. In what is our first glimpse of
the insights Tansy is capable of, she says of her
ever-present-in-spirit mum, "Perhaps this is what it means to be
haunted. Perhaps ghosts aren't troubled souls in themselves, but
souls whose memory troubles the people who are left behind. Ghosts
don't exist, they're in the mind." 

Barr cleverly reveals a murder mystery not through the telling of
the events, but as "gossip" in newsy e-mails exchanged by Tansy
with friends and family back in England. Someone is on the rampage
in Asia, a doing-in Tansy doppelganger. The outcome may be a bit
predictable to some, as more about the murders unfolds and Tansy
exposes facts about her mother's death. Still, the mystery is
deftly woven into the rest of the story and does not overwhelm.
Barr is never heavy-handed.

In fact, Barr is a master of balance --- appropriately Taoist in
settings both seedy and breathtakingly beautiful. She straddles
several genres well, and never disappoints in any. 

Barr's debut novel is like the proverbial combination platter at
your favorite Chinese restaurant…a little of this, a little
of that, just enough of everything. However, unlike the meal that
leaves you hungry an hour a later, BACKPACK is very

Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 21, 2011

by Emily Barr

  • Publication Date: December 31, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 310 pages
  • Publisher: Plume
  • ISBN-10: 0452282934
  • ISBN-13: 9780452282933