Backpack by Emily Barr
(Plume, $13, PG) ISBN 0-452-28293-4
I thought that Brit Chick Lit would be so over by 2002, but there might be a little life left in the genre yet. Emily Barr’s debut novel, Backpack, reads a little like Bridget Jones on Tour, but it is both sweeter and darker than that defining novel.

A year after her alcoholic mother dies, Tansy Harris decides to chuck it all and find herself via a tour through Asia. The plans are altered, however, when her boyfriend, Tom, backs out at the last minute. After a screaming match in which Tansy accuses Tom of engineering the whole trip just to get rid of her, she vows to have a fabulous time, meet scads of rich, stylish people, meditate a little bit and return so much more enlightened that Tom will have to take her back.

Unfortunately, Asia doesn’t look like the pictures in Tansy’s guidebooks. Vietnam, her first stop, is hot and dreary, and the stylish outfits Tansy brought are soon replaced by the utilitarian, comfortable cotton clothes she always eschewed. The grubby backpackers whom she planned to avoid actually become her friends. And the helpful, freaky guy with too much hair starts looking sexy (after a good shave and a haircut). So Tansy decides to get the recreational drugs and alcohol out of her system, have a nice holiday fling, and see what happens. But there are two problems. Tom unexpectedly has a change of heart and plans to meet Tansy in Thailand, just as things with Max the freak are heating up. Even worse, someone is wandering around Asia, killing blonde backpackers and Tansy is strangely convinced that she is the next target, despite her new friends’ protest that she is just paranoid.

At the start of the novel, Tansy is a completely self-absorbed snob who drinks too much, snorts cocaine and cares only about appearances. She’s had a rough life, with a drunken mother who needed constant care and a father who deserted her for his second family, but it’s hard to feel sorry for such a complete bitch. When Tansy first encounters Vietnamese beggar children, her major concern is that they are getting their grimy hands all over her brand new Irish linen blouse, and you just want to slap her silly. But gradually she becomes a nicer person who learns to appreciate Asian culture and the value of true friendship, although she never fully loses her hauteur.

The romance between Tansy and Max is sweet but predictable. In standard Brit-Chick lit fashion, you know that Tom is going to reappear, that Tansy is going to choose him initially but then realize what a horrible mistake she’s made, and that she’ll end up begging Max for forgiveness. Once he complies, however, the novel becomes unexpectedly dark and an fairly gruesome twist tempers the happy ending.

Tansy’s first-person narrative begins most chapters in medias res, in the middle of the action, then backs up and explains how she got into this particular predicament. It’s an effective way to grab the reader, but it can also be a little confusing. Interspersed with Tansy’s narrative are e-mails to and from friends and family. I had no idea that it was so easy to keep in touch via Internet cafes all over the world, even in Vietnam, Thailand and China. Certainly the world has become a smaller place.

Backpack could be the start of a new mini-genre - Brit Chick Lit meets romantic suspense. As long as the Navy SEALs stay far away, I’m game.

--Susan Scribner

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