on 24 June 2012
If you like a story about the oppressed, the downtrodden or the outsider coming through in spite of harrowing events, grave injustices and enormous odds stacked against them; characters you love to hate; and a good old-fashioned love story, then you may well find wonderful resonances and enjoyment in Tahir Shah's epic novel, Timbuctoo. There are some anti-establishment sentiments in the mix and, given some of the characters' proclivities and activities -- such as the Prince Regent's whimsical excesses and the making of fortunes from trade in unfortunate African slaves -- rightly so, I feel. These themes are timeless.
There's a wise, old saying that you only possess that which would survive a shipwreck. In Robert Adams' case, this was faith, hope, gritty determination and above all the passionate love which fuelled and drove these qualities in him, and to which he clung on for dear life. We're all shipwrecked when we're brought into this world, become enslaved in one way or another and, separated from our "beloved", we yearn to be reunited. There's something about this process that touches on the mystical. In a sense, then, like the old woodcutter in the traditional story of Mushkil Gusha (Remover of All Difficulties), Robert Adams is telling us our own archetypal story and also showing us a way through all this to freedom. The details are very different for each individual, but the underlying pattern is the same.
I found that the author's use of short chapters and often short paragraphs split up the novel into easily manageable "bites", added to the pace of the story and also heightened the drama. With many deft twists and turns in the captivating plot, the book was a real page turner and unputdownable. Knowing little to nothing about the Regency era when I embarked, I also found the rich and vivid description and the adept characterizations educational, informative and also enjoyable and satisfying.
The book is not only about Robert Adams' harrowing narrative, it is of course also about the reception his account received, adding insult to injustice. One thing that struck me was the possible parallel between this and that received by Tahir Shah's own father, the writer, thinker and Sufi teacher, Idries Shah. Both were outsiders and introduced exotic ideas into society, based on first hand experience of the truth. This led both men to become celebrated by many and also dismissed, resented and even undermined by a few self-appointed experts who had their own fixed ideas, largely based on hearsay and what they wanted to believe was the truth. These latter few didn't want to hear the truth but to maintain their vested interests or have their prior beliefs confirmed. This is a point that Idries Shah actually made in the BBC television documentary, "One Pair of Eyes: Dreamwalkers". In it, he says:
"We all think of ourselves as logical people: people who are capable of changing our minds, for instance, if we get superior information, more information which tells us that our former beliefs or prejudices were untrue.
"Doctor Ward Edwards of the University of Michigan Engineering Psychology Laboratory has disproved this in a most alarming manner. He has shown that one third of people are not able to change their minds once they have made them up on the basis of inaccurate information, even if accurate information is subsequently given to them."
A thoroughly enjoyable read -- and well worth re-reading and savouring at a more leisurely pace -- I have no hesitation in giving Tahir Shah's novel, Timbuctoo, five stars; and I can't wait to get my hands on the forthcoming, lavish limited edition hardcover with its bonus features.
Update 15 September 2012: I've since received a copy of the lavish, limited edition hardcover edition, and Tahir Shah's wife and graphic designer, Rachana Shah is to be thoroughly commended for such an exquisite and well thought out book design.
on 27 June 2012
I love this book! Timbuctoo is, for me, a richly rewarding virtual time-
travel voyage into the Regency Period (during the time of the "madness of
King George"). Full of love, greed, loyalty, betrayal, redemption,and so
many other of the finest and the worst of human qualities and
characteristics, Timbuctoo has at its core the story of a great and
true love, sustaining all, through an amazing adventure.
The author's writing style bursts with vitality, and the pages are
loaded with fascinating historical and cultural detail, which in
no way impedes the flow of the 'can't-put-it-down' quality of the story.
The characters in the book are many and diverse, from the sublime
to the ridiculous, and most everything in between, marvelously
filled out and brought to life in the many stories-within-stories
in the tale. From the dregs of human degeneracy to the devotion
of steadfast love, the many players tell their stories here.
The author has managed a writing style where there is a sense
of old-time prose, and yet it flows with great energy and
From beginning to end I thoroughly enjoyed reading Timbuctoo on Kindle,
and I can't wait to get my copy of the hard cover book!
on 27 June 2012
This is the first time I have managed to read an entire book on an electronic device. That must be because it is such an absolutely riveting read.
A man is telling his story, of endurance almost past belief, of powerlessness, of terrible suffering yet of inner resolve. He is telling it in a London club to an audience who know only comfort and whose only challenges are in social decorum. And they have reason not to believe him for he is an outsider claiming knowledge that contradicts the greedy dream they share.
The narration of this man who was trafficked as a white slave through the hellish sun roasted Sahara is interwoven with a cold winter in London, that inconveniences the rich (but threatens the survival of the disregarded poor. (Oh it makes me regret impatience if the bus is late)
This is a very vivid account that brings alive the period, the people the physical sense of London before motor vehicles and electricity and phones as well as the unpredictable life of those with little or no say over what happens to them.
As I said I read this in digital format - and it is a bargain - but I am looking forward to the release of the real book edition, which sounds like it is one for book lovers - and might well make book lovers of those who aren't.
on 28 June 2012
There are people even today who are unsure about whether Timbuctu exists or whether the word is just a metaphor for somewhere really remote. In early nineteenth century England Timbuctoo signified a city of great wealth where anything that could be fashioned from gold was. By the time a destitute Robert Adams was found close to death near Covent garden, the Royal Committee for Africa was planning a major expedition to find and plunder the fabled city. The revelation that Adams had been to Timbuctoo was not received with unalloyed joy but, since a naval blocade prevented his return to his native America, it was decided that he recite his story in the presence of Simon Cochran, Secretary to the Committee.
The story Robert Adams tells, of his shipwreck and involuntary, nightmarish journey through the Sahara weaves like a timeless thread through the rest of the narrative. He is a Christian Odysseus at the mercy of the Dark Continent rather than the Wine-dark Sea, where endurance of privation, brutality, loneliness, terror and temptation is only possible because he manages to keep alive the hope of reaching home and being reunited with his Penelope, his dearly beloved wife, Christina.
As Adams waits for the war between England and America to end and for a ship to take him home, we are drawn deeper and deeper into the life of Regency London, meeting the rich and powerful with no conception of work, the numerous servants upon whom they rely but who are considered unworthy of notice, the scientific and literary elite represented by Sir Joseph Banks, George Byron and Jane Austen, and others who earn their living independently in unorthodox ways. We even find ourselves inside the doors of some of the grim institutions of the day, Bedlam, the Marshalsea and prison ships anchored on the Thames.
'Timbuctoo' has all the ingredients of a great story: unpredictable events, vivid description, unforgettable characters, humour, mystery. Like Homer's 'Odyssey' it is rich in symbolism, but its unexpected twists and turns defeat the attempts of a rational mind to analyse it. This is a book to be enjoyed while its wisdom is allowed to surface in its own good time. Suspend disbelief as characters from history lose their inhibitions and behave with increasing bizarreness until an immensely satisfying, but outrageous climax is reached. We have been brought to another world where buffoons rule and demons scheme, but where kindly spirits also exist. At least one other world lies beyond, but to reach it, as Robert Adams, who has within him the essence of Christianity, knows from experience there are no alternatives to love and endurance.
on 25 June 2012
This book is very different from Shah's other works in the sense that it is a novel, based on historical fact. Yet, like his other books, reality is described in a way that is surreal.
At times we say how reality is more extreme than our wildest imagination can portray and that is exactly the case here.
Shah's book is an adventure that is full of facts, with layered stories and minute descriptions that are wonderful, full of life and love for truth.
Who would have ever thought that there were white slaves in the early 19th century in this part of the world? Who really understood the effects of the Regency period, i.e. the ruler being a Mad King and the Prince Regent portrayed with an eye for such detail?
There is an underlying love story which demonstrates not only a romantic relationship, but which is also a story on a steadfast love of truth.
This quest for truth stands out amidst the other truths. There are descriptions of the cruelty of which human beings are capable, as long as they believe in their own petty truth. These are, of course, as much relevant in today's world and give a new, historical perspective, enabling us to look at ourselves slightly differently in the modern world.
Shah has obviously done a lot of research into the reality of those days of the Regency period. This enhances the quality of the portrayal of that world, making it easier to enter and take part in.
This is a must-read, original book that will be hard to put down (in the literal and figurative sense of the word). Wonderful!
on 30 June 2012
It is the Regency, King George III, too mad to reign is confined to Windsor Castle whilst his effete and profligate son George, Prince of Wales, acts as Regent, supposedly reigning in his place. It is a period we have all heard of, but possibly ignored. Against this backdrop, Robert Adams an uneducated but intensely civilised American, emerges from three years in the Sahara desert to find himself in the centre of a maelstrom of financial and political intrigue.
The story takes us from the tinkle of fine china to the harsh reality of dark cobbled alleys where life is cheap, a sharp knife in the jugular is the answer to anyone who has embarrassing truths to reveal. We learn about the science of the day, the menus served in Brighton Pavilion, 'ow a 'ang a man quick and clean. A gripping tale, easy to read, there is no danger of loosing interest in this one.
I was sad to reach the end and to have to leave the world that I had grown to like, where the characters have a Dickensian intensity and their various tales unfold around Robert Adams as he struggles to survive the narration of his time in Africa. Filled with numerous small details that make you taste and feel life in Regency England along with life as a slave in the Sahara Desert, the book is a great read and stimulates interest in an unappreciated period of history. A surprising achievement for a book read entirely on a mobile phone!
on 14 July 2012
A certain scepticism about all the hoohah, changing to astonishment at the level of physical production for the tome- a return to old style craft publishing values. Truly a worthy container indeed! As for the content I think the other reviewers have it all nailed. It's a corker! Wonderful read that will transport you effortlessly to another time, another place...
on 6 July 2012
What a surprise to realize that I was reading a romantic novel in the classic English style, with scents of Jane Austen, Lord Byron and even the Victorian Oliver Goldsmith. Written in the second decade of the 21st century by the English author of Afghan background Tahir Shah, whom I very much admire but from whom I had never read anything similar, I was truly amazed. Of course, the novel exposes the idiosyncrasies and the plain stupidities of Regency English society and royalty, in a way that an author of the period could not do. That adds an extra dimension which makes the book very clever. The novel is rich in interesting details of the epoch and paints old London in vivid colors, revealing the critical but loving eye of the author on the city's past customs and history. All is not light, however, or Western; the author does not spare the East. He includes an account of extreme Arab brutality towards Christians (a reaction to Christian atrocities committed during the crusades?) and of Africans' violence against any and all people in the book. The short venture into the American society of the period does not show it to be much better. The common characteristic of all peoples involved in the story is greed. However, this is redeemed by a few more humane characters: the hero of the story, an American who is truly pure and sensible, two Englishmen, and a Frenchman who appears at the very end. Moreover, the story is a love story, but not in the common sense. The main character is driven by and ultimately saved by an idealized love that approaches the mystical. So, despite the flavor of classic English literature, and the re-reading of an old piece of history, the book is fresh and clever and makes for great reading.
on 6 July 2012
This is an entertaining and highly thought-provoking book. Set in Regency London, it recreates the true story of Robert Adams, an American who got enslaved in the deserts of the Sahara, was taken to Timbuctu and then managed to escape, being the first westerner in the modern era to tell the world the truth about the famed African El Dorado.
This is such a rich book, however, that it is hard to do it justice in a review like this. On one level it is a portrait of Regency Britain, in all its decadent and inquisitive glory - the details of everyday life both at the higher and lower ends of society are mind-boggling. Meanwhile the story is also something of a morality tale, of a country gripped by greed and how an obsession with gold almost brought the kingdom to its knees. There are echoes with many traditional tales here, not least the Emperor's New Clothes, while many readers will find parallels with current times.
Not least, it's the kind of book that stays with you long after you have finished reading it - certain images and sensations it provoked are still with me now, almost a week after I finished it.
on 15 July 2012
Tahir Shah's abundant gift for travel writing has made a deft transition into fiction, with Timbuctoo a gripping yarn. The reader is transported to the streets and salons of Regency London, with Shah's talent in setting a rich historical context enriching a strong and absorbing plot. Characters are drawn with bold strokes, with the notable figures of the time being animated in rich colours through the interplay of fiction and fact as the tale unfolds.
There is a certain curiosity in being so transported into this past world through the virtual pages of an ebook, but the splendour and vision of the book itself - which is an irresistible purchase after the digital tasting - is absolutely of it's time. Presented with an attention to detail and a breadth of reference which are breathtaking and delightful, the book is a fitting tribute to the epic tale it tells and adds a wealth of pleasure to an already splendid read.