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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Travel Writing

Peter Ferry is a storyteller and his debut novel, Travel Writing, is one terrific story. The novel’s dedication is the first clue that Ferry has chosen to write something a little different to mark his first time out. It will not take long for alert readers to notice that the three people to whom the book is dedicated have the same names as three of its main characters, nor that the author himself is the novel’s narrator. Soon enough, the reader is wondering what is real and what is not - and that is half the fun of Travel Writing.

Fictional Peter Ferry (as well as real life Peter Ferry) is an English teacher who makes a few bucks on the side writing newspaper travel pieces. He is also a born storyteller and he motivates and inspires his high school students by example, often telling them on-the-fly stories in class, rather than by preaching the mechanics of writing. All in all, Ferry is pretty content with his life, but all of that changes one winter night when he witnesses a car crash that claims the life of a young Asian woman.

Only moments before her death, Ferry had noticed the woman’s erratic driving before she pulled alongside him at a stoplight. The two make brief eye contact as Ferry realizes the woman is either too drunk or too ill to drive safely but before he can intervene she speeds away to her death. Realizing that his was the last face the woman would ever see, Ferry becomes haunted by his inaction, always wondering if he could have saved Lisa Kim’s life by acting more quickly and decisively.

This is the story Peter Ferry chooses to tell his high school English class, a story of one man’s personal obsession with the death of a woman he never knew in life but comes to know intimately after her death. Having failed to save her life, Ferry is determined to find out why she died. He is so obsessed with solving the mystery of Lisa Kim that he is soon neglecting his work and his live-in girlfriend to the degree that he is in danger of losing both. As Ferry comes closer and closer to the truth about what happened that winter night, readers will find themselves intrigued by the truths he uncovers.

But did any of this actually happen or is it all just an exercise being used by Peter Ferry to make a point about creative writing to his English class? Just about the time one begins to forget that Ferry is a writing teacher, the author yanks him back to his classroom to discuss the story with his young students. Further complicating things is the book’s narrative structure. The story is told from the past to the present with flashbacks and related travel pieces interspersed throughout, a choice that further helps to blur truth and which leads to the novel’s clever ending.

Did it happen? I found that I was not sure, and that I really did not care much, because I enjoyed the story for what it is, just as Mr. Ferry’s English class is so intrigued by it. I did have great fun along the way trying to decide whether or not the story is just part of Mr. Ferry’s lesson plan or if it really happened to him. But, in the end, despite all the fun readers will have with it, this is a book with a serious message about personal responsibility and how far that responsibility extends into the lives of perfect strangers.

Travel Writing is a remarkable first novel which, at least for now, moves into my 2009 Top Ten.

Rated at: 5.0

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