Pros: Great writing, learn lots about Cuban history, politics and culture
Cons: Less than usual about the author's own experience
The Bottom Line: Veteran travelling granny discovers Cuba
In her latest literary outing, the now elderly and increasingly opinionated travel writer and veteran cyclist Dervla Murphy describes a series of trips to Cuba. The opening section deals with a family trip in late 2005. Readers who have followed Dervla's books from the beginning will have grown up with Rachel, the author's daughter, who accompanied her on a number of trips between the ages of five and eighteen. Now Dervla travels with Rachel and Rachel's three young daughters, Clodagh, Rose and Zea, known for ease throughout the book as the Trio. The middle section sees Dervla return alone to spend several months trekking in places such as the Sierra del Escambray mountains, and in the final third of the book, Dervla returns to the city of Santa Clara for the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the death of Ernesto Che Guevara.
Those who are familiar with Dervla's travel writing will know that her books are more than mere travelogues; they are meticulously researched and present a thorough background to the history and politics of any destination she visits. "The Island that Dared" is more of the same: in fact at times it's too much and the factual content overshadows the travel writing. That said, Dervla uses a variety of sources for her research and the result is perhaps the best insight into contemporary Cuba that I have so far read. As she travels, Dervla occasionally gets to talk to Cuban intellectuals about the Revolution and their thoughts on and expectations for the future. I was disappointed that she doesn't talk more to ordinary Cubans about what they think (of course, many will have been wary about being seen talking to a foreigner). On the other hand, the interviews with exiles living in Florida were fascinating and added an extra dimension not always covered in texts on Cuba.
This is vintage Dervla and her descriptions of the stunning scenery – on the coast and in the mountains – and of the attractive colonial buildings are wonderfully evocative. I would have liked a bit more about the homes she stayed in but I'm always greedy for more Dervla. Her resourcefulness and resilience shine through as always and her attempts to try to persuade the locals that she is merely an old lady who likes hiking and not a case for a dementia specialist make for great reading.
I found that the section I most enjoyed was the one where she travels with her family which surprised me as previously I liked best the books in which Dervla travelled alone. The grandchildren prove to be excellent travel companions even though Dervla several times has to make compromises she'd probably rather not. Later when she returns to Cuba to travel on her own she says that she'd be back to normal. Now, Dervla has never been one for hot sticky climates, but I soon found her complaints about the heat and the humidity quite tedious. This was only the beginning of a list of grumbles and irritations that spoilt my enjoyment somewhat. It's a side of her not usually seen but then again, she has favoured colder climates of late. Having travelled independently in Cuba myself I am familiar with the excessive bureaucracy, the unnecessarily long time it takes to get anywhere and the fluctuations in quality of private accommodation. It needled me a little to read about Dervla trying to sidestep the rules, often to the detriment or inconvenience of those trying to help her.
I'd recommend The Island that Dared with certain reservations. The author repeatedly tells us that Cuba is essentially about the people but I felt this wasn't reflected overall. There's perhaps too much emphasis on context and not enough focus on the people who live with the Revolution as it works (or doesn't) today. However, if you do want to know more about the background to the revolution this is required reading. Dervla is as eloquent as ever, making an engaging and authoritative guide to one of the world's last enigmas. While Cuba may not be the least visited of the destinations Dervla has covered, she certainly helps her readers know it better.