Review of Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place

Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place

There are many sorts of tracks: animal tracks, railroad tracks, race tracks, music tracks. Tracks also can be a verb, and in this new book, Canadian novelist Genni Gunn tracks herself through a series of travel essays in which places evoke memories, and memories link one place with another.

“. . .when one travels, the unknown awaits to be discovered— about one’s self, about others, about one’s relationship to time and place.” (8)

Genni has always been a traveller, from her childhood in Italy when she lived with an aunt in one place and her sister with their grandparents in another, travelling to be with each other while their parents worked abroad. At the age of eleven she travelled to Canada, to Kitimat B.C. where the family was at last reunited, their playful adventures on Sunday picnics captured by their father’s 8mm cine camera.

There are music tracks in Genni’s life, criss-crossing Canada on tour with a rock band, and railroad tracks, as she goes in search of the trackman’s hut where her grandparents lived during World War II. Other tracks include the mountain roads of Myanmar, where Gunn’s sister Ileana lives.

Following a broadly chronological arc from her childhood to the present, Tracks is arranged thematically in sections titled Escap(ad)es, “Explorations, Discoveries, and Excavations," in which explorations, for example, of caves and ruins allow one place to call to another, evoking memories and reflections. A description of Lawa Cave in Thailand leads to the Grotte di Castellana in Italy, where her uncle told her a secret: “I can’t step into a cave without recalling white alabaster walls and my uncle’s whisper in the dark.” (59) Here, and in the eponymous chapter, Tracks, readers of her novel Solitaria will find passages that, sometimes word for word, match passages in the novel, and, like the novel, turn over questions of memory, identity and home.

Not lavishly but satisfyingly illustrated, ranging widely in time and space, not quite autobiography, not quite a travel guide, this little book is much bigger on its inside than the outside suggests.

— Linda Knowles CanText

More Reviews of this title

Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place

Good travel writing opens up the mind, even as it relates a journey. Genni Gunn seems to know this intuitively.

And though her collected essays aren't all, or even exclusively, about travel, her instincts remain sound throughout.

Gunn is a Vancouver-based writer who has written nine books, including three novels, the most recent of which, Solitaria, was long-listed for the 2011 Giller Prize.

Born in Trieste, Italy, she came to Canada when she was 11.

She discounts suffering any childhood immigration trauma, but her suddenly being propelled from one continent to another at least partly explains why family ties figure so prominently in this compilation, which has been released by a small Winnipeg-based literary publisher.

It also explains why recollections of her early life pop up everywhere -- even decades later, in the midst of exploring remote jungle villages of the Asian subcontinent.

Gunn's subtitle is entirely appropriate; though her book is partly about travels to foreign climes (principally Myanmar, but also Cambodia, Mexico and Hawaii), it's also part childhood memoir of a life begun in another country. Still other pieces are about Gunn's past life in Canada.

She spent much of her 20s as a vocalist and bass and keyboard player in a succession of forgettable Canadian touring rock bands. It was an existence apparently short on sex, dope and cheap thrills, but long on bone-tired weariness, ennui and poignantly sad observations about bar-band life.

These remembrances-of-things-past pieces stand out, as do the essays about her adult self returning to childhood haunts and re-connecting with elderly relatives in Rutigliano, a city on the Adriatic coast of southern Italy sing. She has a knack for illuminating how landscape and history, both national and personal, can intersect.

Many of her best-rendered memories are ones she shares with her older sister, Ileana.

Ileana -- of both the past and present -- is the book's other major recurring character. Not only does Gunn trade childhood memories with Ileana, but her sister is often her companion on her journeys to Southeast Asia.

The book almost refutes Thomas Wolfe's you-can't-go-home-again dictum. Sometimes, it seems, you can go home again. But only if you have a close, artistic and articulate sister who'll share, amend and vivify your memories.

Gunn's travels often left her wondrous at what she encountered.

But she doesn't over-romanticize Third World countries. Nor does she shy away from describing the frustrations, discomforts and even dangers that are the natural lot of the adventurous traveller.

Gunn visited Myanmar several times between 2006 and 2010. She treats that beleaguered nation with fascination, respect and an eye for detail, including the political details of Burmese daily life.

The country is run by a fabulously wealthy and unimaginably brutal military junta that has networks of spies and informers everywhere. Not surprisingly, low-level paranoia is omnipresent among its people.

Her tales of a paradisiacal country under military rule display fortitude and fine writing in equal measure. She never tried to put herself in harm's way, but ended up being intrepid in the face of men with guns, almost in spite of herself.

The tales of journeys taken Gunn details are mighty fine. But they're more than matched by the inner journeys she's tapped for this collection.

— Doug Johnston Winnipeg Free Press

Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place

Gunn’s writing is exquisite and beautifully rendered. She transports the reader to foreign lands by rooting her language in the senses – visual, auditory, tactile. It is this which transforms her narrative into an emotional journey through time and space.

— Wendy Caribousmom

Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place

Well-written and keenly observed, these essays move back and forth between a conviction that wanderlust is the author’s true home — superior to “the claustrophobia of continuity” — and a longing to penetrate the mystery of her relationship to her mother: “…her feet/my feet wanting to map new soils.”

— Carole Giangrande, author

Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place

In Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place, Genni Gunn offers a wonderful smorgasbord of memoir, travelogue and biography which includes travel and family photographs as well as competing and inviting crostoli recipes from her mother and aunt. It is hard to decide on which shelf such a book belongs, yet the consistency of the author's voice provides a comfortable continuity.

Gunn's tracks cover a wide canvas. The beginning has fairy-tale echoes: Two sisters are separated and sent to opposite ends of Italy while their parents mysteriously disappear to places unknown. The fairy tale ends when the family is brought together on the west coast of Canada in a small town from which there is no apparent escape:

"So there we were in Kitimat. Remote and inaccessible to outside influences, it sealed the inside in, like the posts in the aluminum smelter — sputtering with molten metal — which now and then splashed onto the exposed skin between glove and sleeve, between collar and hair."

Too young to ask questions, Gunn is unaware that her father's disappearances were caused by his work with the British Intelligence Corps during the war years. These early disruptions have left Gunn in a permanent state of longing' which has her travelling back to Italy, to her childhood homes, to visit elderly relatives and connect with her sister, first in Italy and later in Burma (Myanmar). While travelling, she searches for 'the unstable ground, the fault lines, the deepest caves that echo my inner journey.' The need to travel runs through the generations, and the book closes with Gunn's 87-year-old artist mother impulsively deciding to sell her Vancouver home and relocate to Ontario — just another of her lifelong migrations that have had her packing boxes every three or four years. Gunn identifies with her mother's restlessness, observing that 'Already her eyes are filled with other skies, her feet tapping, divining. Always sure this time, this place, this house ... her feet/my feet wanting to map new soils.'

The descriptions of Gunn's 12 years of road travel, criss-crossing the country as a rock musician, are dark, frequently dreary, often poignant and sometimes painful. A composition major enrolled in a Bachelor of Music program and serious about music, she supports herself by playing in all-male bands and quickly learns the unspoken rule: Membership in this boys' club required that I keep quiet about what I saw or heard. The glimpses we are offered of what she witnessed are not pretty. Although she experiences magical moments in which she feels carried by the music, the portrayal of the highways, bars, dressing rooms and one-nighters in small towns from Western Canada to Newfoundland is mostly bleak. Years later, settled into a Comfort Inn during a writers festival, Gunn begins what is to be a hilarious account of a girl in a red dress, whom the drummer had signalled was 'his,' when she suddenly recalls images of the girl carried away naked and unconscious while the guitarist returns to his friends, laughing and dancing, wearing the red dress. Shocked by her own complicity, Gunn is unable to continue telling the story.

By contrast, the stories Gunn tells of her travels in Mexico, Cambodia, Burma and Puglia in southern Italy are uplifting. Despite encounters with grim poverty and constricted lives, they are replete with images of sapphire seas, golden pagodas, venomous snakes, crumbling ruins and people who endure hardship with humour and hope. There is a touching account or Gunn's visit to Locorotondo, the town to which her grandfather, a trackman, had been relocated with his wife and seven children in 1940 when Mussolini declared war on the Allies. Gunn retraces the tracks of her now elderly Aunt Ida's memory as well as the railway tracks by her grandfather's castello, which lead her to memories of her own childhood that merge with her aunt's story so that they become one. Gunn wants to return to the roots of her early childhood memories, but when she visits her aunt the following year, the old woman has had a stroke and is much diminished. Nonetheless, she is able to recite line after line of Dante's Inferno, and Gunn reflects on the connections made over the years through the many and various family journeys:

"I've stood at railway tracks, my toes against the ties, while trains approach. Now I sit at my aunt's bedside, my hand in hers, and hold my breath as years lumber past tuned to the whine of flesh and bone. Today, we journey together through Dante's Inferno, through his Purgatory and Paradise, our eyes wet, our hearts open to each other, to the magic that is poetry — a language through which we can finally communicate."

What defines Gunn's collection is not just poetry, but also music and art and travel and the need to constantly recreate and relocate oneself through all of these media. Gunn's sister, artist Ileana Springer, says this about recent paintings:

"I was examining identity and the loss of it when we move country to country.... Although the immigrant moves towards the fantasy of a better life — the space of desire — the loss of identity causes new problems. I used these images because I wanted to layer the displaced person's memory, dreams, reality, disappointments."

Like Springer, Gunn examines her own identity as she makes new tracks across the places of her childhood, her youth, her family and the locations of her travels over the years. These layered memories reveal the writer's honest, courageous search to understand who she has been and who she has become.

— Carol Matthews Event

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