Novel thoughts

In an interview a few years ago, Julian Barnes explained why it had taken him eight years to complete his semi-autobiographical first novel, Metroland. For too long, he felt constrained by the facts of his own life as they had happened. Even though he was writing a novel, he still didn't feel entirely free to invent. Only on realising that the truth was his to embellish had the novel finally taken shape. So plausibly rendered were Barnes's inventions, in fact, that several French journalists wrongly assumed that a scene in the novel, in which the protagonist loses his virginity in Paris, was true.

This summer three novels about travel are published which succeed or fail, to a large extent, on the freedom that their authors grant to their imaginations. Colin Thubron's To the Last City (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) tells the story of a group of Europeans who travel to the "lost city" of Vilcabamba, the last Inca outpost against the conquistadors, which has been subsumed by jungle for 400 years. For the most part, it is an elegant fable. Thubron adroitly examines the confused motives of those undertaking the trek, including Francisco, a Spanish priest, who believes he can atone for the rapacity of his forebears, and Louis, a failed Belgian architect, who is seeking a fresh start in life with his young wife, Josiane.

The dust jacket, however, inadvertently touches on the major failing of the novel. We are told that Thubron (who, besides writing travelogues such as Journey into Cyprus and In Siberia, is the author of six previous novels) "for the first time joins his talents as a travel writer with his gifts as a novelist". And this is precisely the problem: the book seems trapped between two genres, as if Thubron was unsure whether he wanted to write a factual account or something imaginary, so settled for both. This doubt is echoed in the character of Robert, a journalist who believes he has it in him to write a book about the journey he is on, but who instead discovers that he lacks the ability to "possess this place in words". Behind Robert's writerly travails, there is a sense of Thubron struggling to come to terms with his own uncertainties. That he opted for a fictionalised account almost makes To the Last City read like a novel by default.

The Main Cages (Flamingo, £12.99) is the first novel by another celebrated travel writer, Philip Marsden. Set in mid-1930s Cornwall, it tells of Jack Sweeney, a young man from a Dorset farming community who travels to the village of Polmayne to set up shop as a fisherman. Polmayne is the opposite of a sleepy village; and Marsden dutifully covers such historical developments as the arrival of electricity and the increasing attraction of the region as a tourist destination. "Rights to potting grounds were divided up along complicated lines of allegiance, decided either by ties of blood or by any one of a dozen tacit fraternities," he writes.

This plethora of detail has the effect of submerging the novel's central story: the affair between Jack and Anna Abraham, the wife of a local artist. At times, Marsden appears to have forgotten that he is writing a novel altogether. There are numerous potted histories: the appearance of Anna's husband, for example, is preceded by a lengthy explanation of Polmayne's attraction to artists over the years which could have been cribbed from a tourist guide.

How refreshing, then, to read another novel with a nautical theme, but one that avoids the prosaic altogether. Yann Martel's Life of Pi (Canongate, £12.99) is a riotous imaginative excursion, the account of 16-year-old Pi - the son of a zookeeper - who emigrates from his home in India to Canada in a lifeboat, accompanied by a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a Royal Bengal tiger. The reason for this peculiar mode of transport is that the rest of Pi's family - along with their other animals - have drowned in a shipwreck, leaving Pi and his crew to fend for themselves in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Naturally, it is an entirely improbable scenario, but this does not matter, because the telling is so compelling. Unlike Thubron and Marsden, Martel has allowed his imagination free rein. Who, after all, needs plausibility when you've got close-quarter descriptions of ferocious animals tearing into one another ("The zebra was being eaten alive from inside"; "There was a noise of organic crunching as windpipe and spinal cord were crushed")?

There are many vivid descriptions, and the whole novel is infused with such childlike exuberance that the odd clumsy expression ("I didn't have pity to spare for long for the zebra") is easy to forgive.