An absolute wonder of a novel.Irenosen Okojie

In the opening chapter of Regina Porter’s The Travelers, a small dozing girl drifts into the deep end of a pool whilst her grandfather is preoccupied. She doesn’t drown in the end, just as Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s granddaughter didn’t drown in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. Porter has nonetheless managed to compress a span of 60 years into one novel whereas it took Updike four Rabbit novels to cover 30 years. Porter follows two families, one black and one white, from the 1950s to Barack Obama’s first term as President. This is an ambitious undertaking with a large cast of characters and, although a cast list is provided, it takes a while to establish exactly who’s who in the different strands of the story that will ultimately all overlap.

The Travelers is ultimately a frequently painful novel of great depth and lyricism.”

There is a restlessness in Porter’s prose, a sense of impatience that she is trying to lead the reader to a point where this multifaceted story will all join up, which doesn’t always make for relaxing reading. There is much to cram in, however, from the beautiful young African-American woman whose chance encounter with the police in Georgia will change her life, to her former lover who finds happiness as a gay woman in 1970s Berlin, to the two half-brothers who will meet as adults in the Color Land crayon factory.

A not untypical line reads: “Jebediah Applewood had not had a hard-on in ninety-two days. He had fucked one hundred sixty-three women in Vietnam, a modest number by some estimates.” Sensuality and violence are everywhere: the same character will find himself crying, his face wet as a sponge, when he stands outside the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King had been murdered three years earlier, and will find comfort in taking the landlady of the (Green Book-listed) B&B he is staying at to bed.

There is occasional over-explanation: when a young waitress in a diner is told not to serve a black man, who protests that he is a Vietnam veteran, she hurries after him to give him a free burger and fries then informs him, “My baby brother’s fighting over there.” A more confident writer might have allowed the waitress to hand over the grease-stained paper bag without need to justify why she would take this risk. Porter also has a tendency to move the action along before the reader is quite ready. But this is not always a fault: the same has been said of Matthew Weiner’s rightly admired Mad Men. The Travelers is ultimately a frequently painful novel – not least when a neglected child considers not waking her parents when their house is on fire – of great depth and lyricism.

 

Regina Porter is an award-winning playwright and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. She was born in Savannah, Georgia and lives in Brooklyn. The Travelers, her first novel, is published in hardback, eBook and audio download by Jonathan Cape/Vintage Digital.
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reginaporterbooks.com
@ReginaMPorter

Author portrait © Liz Lazarus

Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Spectator, the Evening Standard, Prospect, the Mail on Sunday, 1843 magazine, Condé Nast Traveller, the Times Literary Supplement and many others.
alexpeaketomkinson.com
@AlexPeakeTom

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