Travel literature review: Monkey House Blues

Monkey House BluesMonkey House Blues by Dominic Stevenson

4 star

Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by TAH

TAH has worked as an editor at LP for the past 5 years, and has also authored several guidebooks. His travels have taken him throughout Asia, Africa, Central America and Europe.

True crime is a genre that has long appealed to the darker recesses of the reader’s mind, and this account of languishing in a third-world prison definitely fits this description.

However Monkey House Blues is no ordinary prison book. It’s more a travel memoir, as English writer Dominic Stevenson effectively narrates his story by intertwining his travels throughout Asia while serving a 2½ year sentence in a Shanghai prison for drug smuggling. It’s a juxtaposition that works beautifully, as his fond travel recollections are constantly brought to a brutal end as he’s transported back to the cold hard reality of his prison cell.

Busted with a guitar packed full of hash (which he’d intended on selling for a healthy profit in Japan), Dominic recalls the nightmarish arrest and incarceration in a cell with two Chinese inmates for over a year. As horrendous as the experience sounds, he copes, almost relishing the opportunity to reflect on his life – particularly his travels. He is then moved to the notorious Monkey House prison that has the advantage of five foreigners who speak English, and is intriguing to hear of the violence, prison politics, psychological mindgames and cultural nuances. Though it’s the Chinese who really get the raw deal. Many, particularly political prisoners, are imprisoned without knowledge of their charge, often awaiting years to be sentenced. He dedicates the book to them, which makes for a nice touch.

While it’s difficult to give too much sympathy to drug smugglers, his character is hard to dislike. Dominic belongs to an unrecognised generation of travellers who were handed the baton from their hippy predecessors – visiting Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Thailand on a steady diet of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. It stands in stark contrast to the saturated and often less adventurous nature of backpackers today. His descriptions of Goa in '89 are particularly evocative, and equates it to San Francisco in '69 – a feeling of being in the right place at the right time: “If you were into music, motor bikes, drugs and so on it was some kind of Eden”.

Monkey House Blues makes for a great read; full of entertaining travel anecdotes and an intriguing insight into the Chinese prison system – a country infamous for its atrocious human rights record.

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