Big Fish fits neatly into the expanding genre of ‘backpacker in peril’ novels, which perhaps began with Alex Garland’s The Beach and which found further commercial success with Emily Barr’s Backpack. Stuart Ward – the innocent abroad protagonist of Osmond’s novel – is far less cocksure than Garland’s traveller, though, and the book as a whole provides a far more satisfying mystery than the predictable Backpack.
On a Gap Year from work, Stuart arrives in French Polynesia as the first stop on a Round-the-World itinerary. Hopeful of adventure and romance, instead he finds himself unwittingly drawn into a conspiracy to cover up a fatal road accident, and he quickly discovers that the beautiful, paradise islands are no Eden. Events take an even more perilous turn for Stuart, when one-by-one his co-conspirators begin to disappear…
The descriptions of the Polynesia islands – and later of New Zealand, where the dramatic climax of the story occurs – are particularly evocative, and make the reader want to immediately contact their nearest travel agent to check on the latest flight availability, but the beauty of the surroundings are countered by the ever-present threat of menace which appears to stalk the young backpacker. Parents beware! It is probably best not to know what horrors await your Gap Year travelling offspring!
If there is any criticism of Big Fish it is that the basic premise of the crime is perhaps slightly too similar to that of I Know What You Did Last Summer, and also that the sub-plot, involving a thief preying on the backpackers, is a little weak – although entirely accurate, as any students or inhabitants of shared accommodation will testify – but these are minor gripes, in what is a thoroughly entertaining and intriguing novel. Andrew Osmond proves to have both a light, comic touch in his observations of the discomforts and embarrassments of travel, but also reveals a darker side, reminiscent of some of the writings of J G Ballard, when he explores the isolation associated with travelling alone in a far flung country, many thousands of miles from home.
A must for wannabe globe-trotters, armchair travellers and mystery fans, alike.