Book Review: Beyond the Vapour Trail by Brett Pierce showcases the good, the bad and the ugly of aid work

Tales of rebel armies, child soldiers, and starvation frame many of Brett Pierce‘s memories of his career working with some of the most troubled communities around the world. Beyond the Vapour Trail draws together these experiences, showcasing the good, the bad, and the ugly truths of life as an aid worker.

It’s important to note that these are not necessarily stories of gut-wrenching horror, of unspeakable tragedy, though those elements are unavoidably present. Because of Pierce’s career focus on long term projects such as child sponsorship and community engagement, this book is relatively low on the kind of drama one might expect going in, and it’s all the better for it. It’s easy to become desensitised to the immediate and graphic depictions of life in countries so far from our own, but Pierce’s work provides an interesting counter to such dark images, presenting instead stories of what happens after the immediate relief ends – the perhaps even more important work of implementing and co-ordinating long term sustainable change.

Keeping himself as the centre of the story has both its positives and negatives. On the one hand, Pierce is a bridge by which we, as the reader, can access another world. Flawed, troubled, yet still far more privileged than those he encounters, he is a pair of eyes where we often have none, reaching out to communities that, because their suffering isn’t considered newsworthy, we know little about. But, on the other hand, focusing so much on his own story – particularly events outside his actual boots-on-the-ground work – does also go some way to diminishing its impact.

As a result, Beyond the Vapour Trail is a little bit of a jumble. A mixture of memories, with no discernible order to them, punctuated by emails sent home to his wife. There are some interesting insights here – little vignettes from an undoubtedly interesting and rewarding life – but it’s all slowed somewhat by his own adventures, and traveller tips. It’s never clear what exactly Pierce was hoping to achieve with this book; is it a Michael Palin like travel guide? an examination of his battle with depression? or a way to raise awareness of the things he’s seen?

Billed as an aid worker’s story,’ Pierce tries to encompass much more than that – something that feels too hard to pull off in such a short work.

Luckily, Pierce’s lively writing style does pull him through. He really does have a gift for describing and setting scenes, with some truly beautiful images created throughout. That said, the book does suffer from a lack of photographs and actual, tangible imagery – which is strange, considering how much Pierce discusses pictures he’s taken on his trips.

Perhaps it’s best to consider the book as an examination of what it truly means to be an aid worker in various countries around the world. As mentioned earlier, Pierce’s work is not in immediate response, or sending care packages in the aftermath of a natural disaster. But is instead more involved in the exploring and investigating of long term, sustainable projects – projects that could help a community thrive. It’s essentially the real life version of the child sponsorship ads we sit uncomfortably through at home, and it’s a side of charity and aid work that we might not be overly familiar with.

Meeting with communities, visiting schools, attending conferences. It’s probably not what comes immediately to mind when we think of aid work, but in Beyond the Vapour Trail, Brett Pierce takes these somewhat less harrowing aspects, and imbues them with the sense of purpose they rightfully deserve.


Brett Pierce’s Beyond the Vapour Trail is published by Transit Lounge and is available now.


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Jodie Sloan

Living, writing, and reading in Brisbane/Meanjin. Likes spooky books, strong cocktails, and pro-wrestling.