Looking up to your siblings is something to which many people can relate, but in The Journal by R.D. Stevens, that sibling connection is particularly powerful and rare. On the cusp of adulthood, Ethan Willis is compelled to discover what happened to his sister, Charlotte, a wild adventurer who was last heard from in the depths of Southeast Asia. Despite his lack of worldliness, Ethan sets out to follow in her footsteps – or at least get on the right continent to begin his search.
In classic Bildungsroman style, Ethan embarks on a journey without a clear goal in sight, unaware that his life is about to change rapidly and irrevocably. As a protagonist, this seemingly hapless 18-year-old is charming, naive and believable, and Stevens isn’t afraid to show him being a bit wet behind the ears, intimidated and out of his element in the challenging lands of Cambodia and Thailand. Backpacking can be an intense experience even for seasoned travelers, but seeing the world through fresh eyes like Ethan’s makes for an enjoyable and surprisingly inspiring read.
Not only is this spontaneous adventure packed with familial reflection and insights into his own past, but Ethan is also shown the outline for his future – a potential international romance, the reality of life as an ex-pat, and some of the downsides to life at home that his cloistered childhood had prevented him from seeing. The closer he gets to discovering the truth about his sister, the more he begins to understand himself, as well as his place in the world. Traveling abroad is an excellent catalyst for existential musing and blue-sky dreaming, and there is plenty of that in the book.
Stevens populates Ethan’s adventures with recognizable characters and sidekicks who drive the story along. Like any good backpacking gap year, Ethan’s progress is unexpected and sporadic, with serendipity and camaraderie becoming more important than plans and firm schedules. The existential quandaries that come with exposure to that type of loose lifestyle are penned brilliantly by the author, leading even staunchly settled and secure readers to question whether they should throw caution to the wind and lose themselves on a beach somewhere in Thailand.
The writing is generally clean and error-free, although there are a few sections where the energy lacks more than others and the prose becomes procedural. The balance of expositional family background and present-day journeying is strong, providing a thorough picture of Ethan, his family, and their overall dynamics, including what may have driven both siblings to the Eastern ends of the earth. Even though Charlotte is a perpetual shadow that Ethan is chasing, she feels like a flesh and blood character; her wisdom and role in her brother’s life is like a tangible voice throughout the narrative.
Between late-night partying, missing sister-induced anxiety, and heartfelt human moments with strangers he meets along the road, Ethan shows himself to be a complex young man who never fails to surprise. Watching him grow up in this novel is not only believable, but moving and subtly profound. The Journal is especially recommend for readers who have been to Southeast Asia, but also for those who never would think to travel so far outside of their comfort zone.
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