Sun, May 04, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Musings on the road less traveled

Backpack literature and the diary of former Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain are intended for the market of younger readers

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

"If you loved The Beach you'll love Losing Gemma," announces the front cover of this new paperback, quoting Elle magazine. And it's true the two have a lot in common. Both are tales of young people, just out of college, coming to grief while doing drugs and traveling in Asia.

All in all, however, this novel probably has more going for it, though there doesn't seem at first sight to be a role for Leonardo di Caprio in any filmed version, unless it's a cameo of a Western would-be guru called Zak.

Esther and Gemma, best friends since the age of five, set off together for India. Esther is the attractive one, cool, neat and hard-headed, while Gemma is overweight, prone to prickly heat rashes and liable to be found poring over classic novels under the sweat-soaked sheet in their sticky backpackers's bedroom.

You don't have to read far before a crucial piece of background information is revealed. Before they left the UK, Esther began a secret relationship with Gemma's boyfriend. Such conquests come easy to Esther, but this was all set to be the big thing for Gemma. Esther feels guilty, but then reckons that Gemma doesn't know anything about it and with any luck never will.

On their second day in the sub-continent Gemma loses a bag containing her passport and all her money. It is retrieved, however, by an Australian woman called Coral, someone who has been on the road for many a month, and has found her way round most of India's more characteristic problems.

Esther, the more dominant of the two innocents, has decided to head somewhere off the beaten tourist trail, and to this end throws their copy of the Lonely Planet guide in the air, promising to go wherever is described on the page it lands on.

Publication Notes:

Losing Gemma

By Katy Gardner

308 pages

Penguin (Paperback; UK)

As a result they head off to a remote Muslim shrine in Orissa Province. Mysteriously, Coral shows up soon afterwards at the same unlikely location. Here the plot thickens. After they have fought their way through the jungle to the shrine itself, sheets of flame and a charred body manifest themselves to the formerly skeptical Esther, though not to the increasingly chummy Gemma and Coral.

Has she been smoking too much of the sacred temple weed Coral brought along with her? Esther wonders. And why are Gemma and Coral getting so close? Is it really a joint pursuit of spiritual enlightenment or something markedly less selfless? And is Esther really as incapable of transcending her domineering instincts and her sense of her own worth, as the other two suggest? Meanwhile Coral, exasperatingly to Esther, shrugs her shoulders and insists it's all meant, intended, part of the plan.

Drug-fueled fantasies and paranoias characterize Losing Gemma just as they did The Beach. Who's really in charge? Who's plotting against me? What is the search for transcendence and spiritual transformation really a cover for? Things predictably go from bad to worse. Esther strikes off on her own, though her options are cut short when she has all her belongings stolen (Could the supposedly other-worldly Coral have been responsible?).

The novel could have been enlarged at this point, with more pen-portraits of self-deluding and posturing spiritual seekers encountered by Esther on her solo journey to Goa. To tell more of what actually transpires would spoil what is in many ways not a bad story.

Nevertheless, the conclusion, which takes place close to the Indian Himalayan town of Manali, is strongly plotted.

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