Wandering through Africa wasn’t that much different, in a sense, from wandering through London, or Paris, or Boston. You thought the road ahead was obvious and well marked but more often than not the destination you had so clearly in mind would never be reached. Never. Things got in the way. There were diversions, problems, changes of mind, changes of heart…
Cashel Greville Ross, the hero of William Boyd’s new novel The Romantic, is a man who does plenty of wandering and whose path through life changes direction many times. Born in Ireland in 1799, he lives through some of the major events of the 19th century and becomes a soldier, a writer, a farmer and an explorer – though not all at the same time. He is present on the battlefield of Waterloo, befriends Byron and Shelley in Pisa and travels through Africa in search of the source of the Nile.
Cashel is not a real person, of course, although Boyd does his best to convince us that he is. The book is presented as a biography, complete with footnotes, pieced together from a bundle of letters, notes, maps and photographs which apparently fell into Boyd’s hands several years ago. It’s not a new idea, but it’s very cleverly done here and I can almost guarantee that you’ll be googling things to see if they’re true, even while knowing that they can’t possibly be!
The Romantic is a long novel, but I read most of it in one weekend because it was so gripping I couldn’t bear to put it down. Although the story never becomes bogged down with historical or geographical detail, it’s still completely immersive and I loved every minute I spent in Cashel’s world. His life story unfolds in a series of distinct episodes and I found each one equally compelling: his childhood in County Cork and the uncovering of family secrets; a journey across Italy in order to write a book about his travels; a moral dilemma faced in a Sri Lankan village while fighting with the Indian Army…these are just a few of Cashel’s adventures and there are many more which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.
Cashel himself is a likeable character, but also a flawed one. As the title suggests, he’s hopelessly romantic; as a young man, his own proud and impulsive nature ruins his chance of happiness with the woman he loves and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel and the rest of his life, as he continually moves from country to country, continent to continent, unable to put this missed opportunity behind him and settle down. His naivety makes him vulnerable and he is repeatedly taken advantage of, suffering a series of injustices and at one point ending up in the Marshalsea Prison for debt, but he never seems to learn from his mistakes, falling into the same traps over and over again. It’s frustrating, but it’s also what kept me turning the pages, desperate to see how Cashel would get out of the latest predicament he had found himself in!
This is one of my books of the year without a doubt and I’m sorry that I’ve never read any William Boyd before.
Thanks to Viking for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 53 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.