Book Review: Silverland: a Winter Journey Beyond the Urals

Silverland: a winter journey beyond the Urals by Dervla Murphy, John Murray, London, 2007.

I must have read ‘Full Tilt’ some 20 years ago and so I am no stranger to Dervla Murphy’s personality and reputation.  This (and the graphic on the cover) perhaps explains why I took this to be a book about a cycle adventure.  In fact it is hardly that at all as most of the travelling is done by train.  However, the travel writing is as vivid and insightful as you would expect from this author.

The book gives a masterclass in travel writing with flowing description jostling with personal encounters, historical backgrounders and political rants throughout the 275 pages. Dervla Murphy is at her best when she seeks to give you a sense of the lived lives of the people she encounters on her journeys. She is as much sociologist and historian as she is traveller.  In this regard this book does not disappoint.

However, I have to say I did not finish it. By the end of my reading I ground to a stop: somewhere along the read the slabs of historical background and the rants against aspects of modern living and western policies got to be too much for me.  While I share the general political perspective the author advances I lost patience and confidence with her on this occasion.  I lost patience with the historical sections because they seemed remote and too poorly connected to the lives of the people she met.  I lost confidence as I came to question the simplicity of her analysis of policy and so began to question how clearly she was seeing the people she met with.  I worried that she was seeing their world through her own ideologically framed lens.  I worried that she seemed to be locked into a past Russia that might have been admirable in many respects, but was now just not sustainable.

I think I had another problem.  Travel in Siberia in winter is just too hard for me to imagine ever wanting to do it.  Somehow the graphic account of life in perpetual frost crept into me and convinced me that this was a journey I could never imagine myself wanting to make.

I abandoned the book reluctantly, however, if for no other reason than someone who suffered as much as the author her her research deserved to be cut some slack.  She is a remarkable person and her fortitude would be outstanding at any age – far less as she is well over 70.  Silverland also presents a very different and powerfully independent view of what is going on in the former USSR and in our wider world and for that it is to be welcomed and admired.

What do I take as the essential contribution to the cycle tourists’ lexicon of this book?  Simply this: there will be times when you will need to be both brave and tough – not least when faced with hard-bitten muggers.  In such situations it helps to be prepared, but it also makes sense to let discretion be the better part of valour.

A serious book by a truly intrepid traveller with a strong spirit and very clear personal view of the world.

Silverland: a winter journey beyond the Urals by Dervla Murphy, John Murray, London, 2007. Recommended with a qualification with 3 stars.   Available here from  Amazon.

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