Book Review | Uncommon: Malta and Gozo

It's not exactly a guidebook, but this unique gem might just make you look at the Maltese islands through a completely different lens.

In writing a positive review, the careless scribbler often runs the risk of coming across as an unwitting PR agent for the product in question. It’s an infuriating state of affairs – why are critics always expected to be spiky and grouchy? It’s as if credibility is automatically bestowed upon those willing to dish out bile indiscriminately, no matter how crude, or downright misguided their views are, or whether they come packaged in an equally uncouth style.

So it’s with some trepidation that I sit down to pen an adequate, honest précis of the Emma Mattei and Jon Banthrope edited volume – it would be unjust but, I grudgingly suppose, honest to call it a ‘travel guide’ – Uncommon: Malta & Gozo, published last month from Miranda, available at all bookstores for €25 and, delivered in a beautifully designed hardback edition with plenty of eye candy and often esoteric design, infuriatingly easy to fall in love with.

But just as it’s remarkably uncool to write a gushing review, the book – which is bursting with mini-essays, memoirs, illustrations and photographs illuminating areas of the Maltese island both familiar and obscure – is similarly made to walk a bit of a tightrope.

Ostensibly serving as a guide for tourists and other interested travellers, a healthy amount of contributions come with an expected romantic wash, so that we can read about the heyday of Strait Street, Lord Byron’s brief but ever-so-scandalous sojourn at the city of ‘yells, smells and bells’, an apologia for band clubs and a piece extolling the topographic (as well as ground level) richness of Mdina.

But not all is rosy. In fact, some of the pages are downright flinty.

This variety is born out of a freeform approach through which the editors hoped to capture “the habit of flux”, as well as an eclectic selection of contributors – from academics to architects to artists to journalists and authors – and allows for pieces like Sandra Banthrope’s hilarious (Don’t) Go to Hamrun (which actually endears you to the smoggy town), and Alex Vella Gera’s From Hamrun to Marsaxlokk in Four Hours (a rambler’s memoir which does its best not to romanticise the journey but by the end, you can’t help but feel the poignancy of this micro-Odyssey).

Nina Gerada’s Birzebbuga Contained takes into account how ‘very few people would recommend’ visiting this ‘seaside town that has been ruined in so many ways’, while proceeding to describe what remains fascinating about this beleaguered port town, aided by an adorably colour-coded map.

And this is ultimately what makes the book more than just a curiosity for tourists. Its overall quirky outlook, even on things we take for granted – read through Raphael Vassallo’s piece, which gets under the skin of key Sliema landmarks to reveal teeming socio-political angst – can actually make you aware of a couple of things you may have missed, on this tiny, tiny archipelago.