With the success of Alex Garland's The Beach, the backpacking novel - stories of self-discovery, drugs and drunkenness - came of age. It has, alas, spawned an entire genre of inferior imitations, all following grimly on the trail of the next Hot New Thing.
These days, it is very chic to trot off on your "year out", your "year after", or just whenever things get a little dull. If you are young, or youngish, world travel is the thing to do. Practically a middle-class rite of passage, more and more students are at it, and it recently received the royal seal of approval when Prince William was snapped scrubbing toilets in South America.
Emily Barr, a travel writer and columnist, embarked on one such round-the-world trip. On her return, she dashed off her first novel, Backpack. This is the story of Tansy, a fashionable embodiment of cliches (beautiful but smart, successful but bored, streetwise but chic, spoilt yet . . . spoilt). When her mother (an alcoholic) dies, Tansy is upset yet joyful. But she herself has been getting drunk, getting high and falling down far too much recently. So she decides that it is time to change her life (to find herself, no less), and a world trip is just the ticket. She takes in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, China and ends up in Kathmandu. Idyllic? Well, yes, if it weren't for the sheer unglamour of backpacking, not to mention the serial killer who seems to be following in her wake.
If Tansy is intended to be an ironic anti-heroine, Barr fails. Seen through Tansy's eyes, everything is ugly, boring and dirty. Barr might be making a point about the vulgarities of the new travellers, but it is hard to sympathise with such a self-important, intolerant protagonist. As a secondary character, Tansy might have been a grim diversion; but as the driving force of the narrative, she makes a very tiresome travelling companion indeed.
Backpack is an uncomfortable mixture of travelogue and fiction, in which the descriptive passages lack the authenticity of first-hand experience. Barr might have been better staying on familiar territory - or, better still, at home.