We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

Victoria: Crown Jewel of British Columbia, Including Esquimalt, Oak Bay, Saanich and the Peninsula

By Susan Mayse

November 4, 2013

Review By Will Garnett

This book claims to be a “multi-faceted photo-essay” which combines historical detail with compelling narrative to provide the visitor with new insights into the many wonders of Victoria and its environs. As an extra bonus, the region’s “green” credentials are placed under a rigorous microscope in the book. It is a novel approach. Does it work?

For this reviewer and recent visitor to Victoria, the answer is “No.” A photo-essay is surely one in which our perceptions of an area are illuminated by stunning photographs which enable us see our surroundings from a new perspective. In this book, too many of the photos are, to be blunt, unremarkable: people on a beach, a dog with sheep, people playing bowls, a close-up of apple blossoms. These pictures could have been taken anywhere. The subject matter is puzzling. Why choose a mute swan, rabbits, or a peacock – commonly seen throughout the world – instead of the humming-bird that makes a herculean effort to come here or a raven, so important in the traditions of the First Nations?

In addition, a photo-essay is a story told in pictures, supplemented by a commentary. If the photos do their job, then few words of commentary are needed; indeed, the fewer the number of words the better. In this book, the photos are swamped by words. To make matters worse, the writer seems comfortable with conventional clichés. We find a “carpet” of leaves, a “patchwork” of green forest, “delightful” countryside. The clichés, far from making the area seem jewel-like, make it appear mundane. Fewer photos, each one exceptional in its concept and execution, would have reduced significantly the need for superfluous commentary – and would have allowed this reader to have focused on the other, more successful aspects of the book.

For much scholarship and research has gone into the production of this book. Historical details and anecdotes abound, though again the format of the book means it is difficult to follow the historical thread. By breaking the Victoria region up into smaller areas, and looking separately at each area’s history, geography, geology and lifestyle, the writer makes it harder for the reader to relate one incident to another, to keep the historical timeline in his or her head.

The format of the book created another major problem. Most visitors to Victoria are not looking for whatever is best to see in Esquimalt or Oak Bay or Saanich or West Shore; rather, they want to know what is interesting in the Victoria area as a whole. The admirable final chapter, entitled “Discovery: Things to see and do,” recognises this fact and provides a comprehensive, easy to understand, extremely helpful list of activities and events to suit all visitors, of whatever age, whatever interest – for the whole Victoria area.

Why then was this format not followed in the rest of the book? Why was the book not divided into concepts – history, gardens, important landmarks, wildlife and so on – with references to where these could be found in each of the areas identified? For example, the history section could point out the enormous benefits of spending considerable time in the Royal BC Museum, but could also point historically-minded visitors to the other sites of historical interest in Esquimalt, Oak Bay, and so on, giving visitors snippets of information to encourage them to broaden their horizons. Likewise, gardeners could have been directed towards the inevitable favourites, such as Butchart Gardens, but could also have been encouraged towards less well-known garden areas within the region.

A better format would have made it so much easier for the reader of the book. Instead of ploughing through page after page, trawling through paragraph after paragraph to find one’s particular interest, the information would have been satisfyingly simple for one to access. And a visitor who understands clearly what is available to see and why particular places are worth visiting, is far more likely to adventure further afield than the harbour area, and to truly understand what a jewel of a place the Victoria region really is. In trying to cover so many different subject areas, the author and photographer have thereby failed to achieve the goals they set themselves. A crown jewel, I am afraid, this book is not.

Susan Mayse
Victoria: Crown Jewel of British Columbia, Including Esquimalt, Oak Bay, Saanich and the Peninsula.
Madiera Park: Harbour Publishing, 2011   hc. $12.95