In 2001 Peter Hessler published his first book, River Town, about the two years he spent teaching in a school in Fuling, far up the Yangtze River. I reviewed it here with the words, ‘I suppose I am not the only China-watcher who will wish they had written this book.’ His relationship with his students and the town was a poignant, funny one, and he related it without condescension. He described his father conversing in Latin with the local Catholic priest, and the student who asked him to say a lot of dirty words into a tape recorder. In 2006, by which time Hessler had lived in China for some years and was writing regularly about it for the New Yorker, he produced Oracle Bones, centring on the most ancient form of Chinese writing. It was again funny, and sometimes touching, but it felt less of a piece than River Town, and betrayed a lot of the famous New Yorker style – detailed, informative, and jokey – that dissolved some of Hessler’s distinctive voice.
With Country Driving, although there are still whiffs of the New Yorker, Hessler is back on track. The book is advertised on the jacket as an account of his driving through China for seven years. Thank God that claim is nonsense. It is true that there is a