Saturday, July 21, 2012

"It's an ordinary place much like any other.... That is, much like any other on the African continent."

4.5 out of 5 stars

*Disclaimer: I was contacted by the author and given a copy of the e-book in return for an honest review. I've never met or corresponded with the author previously, nor have I read any of his other books. No compensation for this review, monetary or otherwise, was received by me.*

I have to admit, what first drew me to this novel was not its subject matter, although I am a huge fan of the Regency period. No, it was the description of the hardbound book Goodreads had on offer as part of their First Reads program. From the brief given: “This is a limited edition hardback, very very high spec, and designed along the lines of the travel books of two centuries ago. It weighs 2 kilos (almost 4.5 lbs), has fabulous marbled endpapers, a silk bookmark, a pouch at the rear with inserts, and six huge fold-out maps. The paper is wood-free, and the cover embossed with raised gold type.” Who could resist that? Lust bloomed in my heart and I desperately wanted to win a copy... which I didn't. So I had to settle for being contacted by the author and given an e-copy (which isn't too bad a deal considering I was thrilled by the offer; yes, I am still geeky enough and silly enough to become giddy when an author contacts little ol' me, a reviewer and blogger of very minor importance). Yet even without the fancy wrappings of the special edition hardback, I fell in love with the book: It hooked me immediately.

Tahir Shah has taken the story of Robert Adams, an illiterate American sailor who spent years in the desert of Northern Africa and saw the fabled city of Timbuctoo, and fleshed it out with fictional elements, expertly marrying the two until it's difficult to tell what's fact and what's fiction. Which is perfect because the result is compelling and immensely readable. The tale of Robert Adams is a true one: He was an American sailor who was shipwrecked off the west coast of Africa. He, along with the rest of the crew, found themselves surrounded by Moors, who stripped the men naked and imprisoned them. Adams spent the next three years as a slave, passed from owner to owner until he was ransomed by Joseph Dupuis, the British Consul at Mogador. At one point, Adams and another white man, a Portuguese fellow, found themselves guests of the king of Timbuctoo, who treated them as oddities and allowed them to roam about the city. After his release, Adams became stranded in London, where he had to survive as a beggar before he was eventually found, half-naked and starving. His tale was dictated to the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, yet it was widely decried as being untrue due to the fact that Europe was in the midst of Timbuctoo mania. The city had become the center of many a tale concerning its riches, specifically gold. It was the new El Dorado, with streets and houses said to be constructed from the warm yellow metal, and many men had set out over the years in order to find it, men most of whom never returned home. Adams was the first to not only reach Timbuctoo but to also come back and recount what he'd seen, and his description of it as being a simple place, with no gold in sight, was not what those men pinning their hopes on the city's riches wished to hear. Adams, after finally returning to America, disappeared from historical record, allowing his detractors to continue in their quest to discredit Adams' achievement, even though his tale had been reviewed and corroborated by the British Consul in Morocco.

This, all on its own, makes for a harrowing and dramatic tale, yet Shah has managed to infuse it with additional, albeit fictional, details, thereby deepening the pathos the reader feels for Adams, who throughout the novel, simply wishes to return home, in Shah's narration because of the woman he left behind, Adams' wife and the love of his life. Timbuctoo also revolves around the characters with whom Adams interacts, from the secretary of the Company to whom Adams is dictating his tale, Simon Cochran, who first acts as Adams' guide and minder but who eventually becomes a friend and confidante to the American, to Sir Geoffrey Caldecott, director of the Company and a man with a very slippery character, even to the Prince Regent himself, portrayed in all his frippery and buffoonery and empty-headed excess. Not to mention a few luminaries of the period, such as Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb. As a result, the novel is multi-layered, introducing many characters, major and minor, along the way, each with their own tale to tell or angle to add to the main story line.

Make no mistake: Though this is a Regency novel, in the strictest of definitions, it's completely different from those commonly known as “Regencies.” There's romance here, yes, but so much more. There's a depth of detail and magnetic storytelling which truly sets this novel apart. As Adams narrates his tale, we are thrust into the sere and unforgiving heat of the Sahara; we can feel the sand burrowing into our skins, the sun raising blisters on our naked backs and unprotected heads, feels our mouths turning to dust as our saliva dries up. Yet, equally, when we navigate Regency London alongside Adams and the others, we are just as much enveloped in the sights and sounds and smells of that era. When reading those London scenes, what really struck me was Shah's ability to convey the casual, almost off-hand cruelty of that period, the dismissive attitude towards those who were poor or diseased or in any way “other” to those who were more fortunate, not to mention the appalling ignorance towards basic information, whether it be scientific or geographical or medical, which today we take for granted. For those of us who admire the era and become caught up in its fripperies, it's a stark reminder that there was a dark side to the Regency period, an underbelly easily ignored in the face of the wonderful fashions and literature and romance which typically take center stage.

It's a near-perfect novel, yet I had a couple of issues with it, minor, yes, but ones which still affected my reading. The first was how the novel was set up: The chapters were exceedingly short, sometimes only a page long. In a way those short chapters worked when it came to the multiple characters, as they helped keep them all straight and gave a sense of immediacy and animation to those scenes where two or more persons' actions took place at the same time. Yet, conversely, those short chapters often had an abortive effect on the action: Just as things were building up, getting me involved in what was being described, the chapter ended, bringing me out of the story with a jolt and making the reading of the book similar to being in stop-and-go traffic. For those scenes where such movement and action wasn't required, I would've preferred having longer chapters which would've allowed me to sink into the story and really savor it. My other nitpick is truly trivial: Shah interspersed letters written by two of the characters in between some of the narration, which I loved; however, the language used wasn't “flowery” enough, didn't seem “Regency” enough. I know, I know, it's such a tiny, insignificant point, not even worthy of being included. And yet I did. Let the excoriating begin.

In the end, I don't think I can recommend this book highly enough. It's a brilliant imagining of one of the most dramatic real-life adventures in history, creating a wonderfully layered, complex, action- and drama-packed novel. Thank you, Mr. Shah, for giving me the chance to read it.

Update as of 9/17/2012: I've since received the lavish hardcover copy of this novel. Actually, this update is a couple of month overdue--forgive me. Anyway, to the hardcover edition, it is just as beautiful and beautifully-designed as I'd imagined. The marble end papers are simply marble-ous *groan* (I had to do it!), the inserts and maps are fascinating, and the book has such a wonderful heft to it, enhancing the story being read. Just as I had imagined it would. 

Read June 29-July 18, 2012
Reviewed July 21, 2012

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