IrishPenJen (United Kingdom) (2011/03/24):
As Lisa, tour leader with Wanderlust Holidays, anticipates supervising the new arrivals on a trip round Mexico, she is feeling less than delighted at the prospect. Her passengers aren't exactly ecstatic either, and not only with the performance of their 'rep'. As we discover in the course of witnessing each day from a different perspective, those on the trip are less than happy both with their travelling companions and, in most cases, with the cards life has dealt them. In this utterly original debut, set against the vibrant backdrop of Mexico, John Aspinall explores with remarkable insight the complexity and pathos of human interaction. In doing so he poignantly reminds us that our perceptions of others are an unreliable guide to the frailties and idiosyncracies concealed by their behaviour.
This book is pure pleasure from beginning to end. Aspinall, a retired English teacher, has produced a first novel that reads like the work of an old hand. It's intelligent, witty, perceptive and accomplished; and above all, it's extremely funny. The story is set in Mexico, where a group of people gather for a package holiday - what the travel company's brochure calls an 'in-depth, once-in-a-lifetime voyage of discovery, by coach, boat and aeroplane, of Mexico and its ancient Indian heritage'. Each day of the holiday is narrated by a different member of the group, starting with Lisa, the jaded tour guide, who's more interested in her emotional problems than in shepherding a gang of grumbling misfits around the tourist attractions of Mexico. As Lisa says, 'You couldn't tell who were going to keep the group waiting all the time, catch malaria and lose their wallets.... All you could be sure of was that they would be a bit worse than the last group. They always are.' As you might expect, the holiday is less than a success. The various members of the group soon grow to loathe each other and tensions are high. Dissatisfaction with Lisa's hands-off approach to her job is widespread. Each of the characters telling the story is an unreliable narrator, seeing only their own viewpoint and unaware, largely, of how they are seen by the others. There are some constants - one character is seen by almost all the others as a bore, another as a misogynistic drunk - but sometimes the viewpoint changes so we're never quite sure where the truth lies. And of course the character narrating the story inevitably becomes more interesting and rounded as we find out more about his or her personal history and circumstances than the others are aware of. The most striking thing about the novel is the ease with which Aspinall adopts the voices of the different characters. It's hard enough to narrate a story from two or three viewpoints, but to do it from ten is a real achievement. In particular, Aspinall is just as good at writing from the women's perspectives as he is from the men's - a very rare skill and one that few authors, let alone first-timers, even attempt. The whole thing is shot through with a dark streak as you gradually become more and more aware of the individual tragedies in each of the characters' lives. This skilful melding of the comic and the tragic makes this an unmissable read. (Kirkus UK)
John Brian Aspinall, a poet and former English teacher, grew up in Rochdale and now lives in France. Gringo Soup is his first novel.