#BookReview The Romantic by William Boyd

The RomanticAbout the Book

Born in 1799, Cashel Greville Ross experiences myriad lives: joyous and devastating, years of luck and unexpected loss.

Moving from County Cork to London, from Waterloo to Zanzibar, Cashel seeks his fortune across continents in war and in peace. He faces a terrible moral choice in a village in Sri Lanka as part of the East Indian Army. He enters the world of the Romantic Poets in Pisa. In Ravenna he meets a woman who will live in his heart for the rest of his days.

As he travels the world as a soldier, a farmer, a felon, a writer, a father, a lover, he experiences all the vicissitudes of life and, through the accelerating turbulence of the nineteenth century, he discovers who he truly is.

This is the romance of life itself, and the beating heart of The Romantic.

Format: Hardback (464 pages)           Publisher: Viking
Publication date: 6th October 2023 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The Romantic is one of the books on the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2023 but it had been on my RADAR long before that.  The Romantic has been compared by other readers to one of William Boyd’s earlier books, Any Human Heart, which is also a ‘whole life’ story, albeit set in a different period. I haven’t read that book although it is on my virtual TBR pile.

The Romantic is a faux biography, complete with footnotes, sketches and draft letters, of Cashel Greville Ross which recounts events in his life from his childhood in 19th century Ireland to his demise at the age of 82. It’s picaresque in style with Cashel undertaking many adventures including being wounded whilst serving as a drummer boy at the Battle of Waterloo, becoming an ice trader and pioneering a new kind of beer (‘Rossbrau’) in New England, and undertaking a search for the source of the River Nile.  Cashel’s fictional exploits are intertwined with real historical events and actual historical personages such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, and the explorers Richard Burton and John Speke.  There is a colourfully drawn cast of minor characters. For example, banker Mr Forbes Harkin described as ‘a slim, serious-looking bald man with a stiff-pointed white wisp of a beard growing from his chin that looked as if it had been stuck there as a prank’.

Described by one reviewer as ‘Around the World in 80 Years’, Cashel’s adventures take him across the globe to places as varied as Oxford, Venice, Zanzibar and Madras.  It’s during his time in Italy that the most significant event in his life occurs: the moment he meets the Countess Raphaella Rezzo. From the start he is completely bewitched by her. ‘And he knew – as an animal knows that he has found his mate. He need look no further, ever.’  However, as we know from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’.

Yes, there’s a love story so Cashel is a romantic in that respect but he is also a romantic in outlook, being driven by impulse and circumstance, rather than by thoroughly thought through plans. ‘Why did he always have to act so spontaneously, he wondered, driven by absolute conviction? Absolute convictions could all too easily be wrong – as his own life had demonstrated.’ Quite. Cashel experiences all the vicissitudes of life from becoming a bestselling author to (shades of Dickens’ Little Dorrit) being imprisoned in the Marshalsea prison for debt. In the process he gains both friends and enemies leading him to adopt new identities from time to time. It also has to be said that he leaves a trail of discarded relationships in his wake, there always seeming to be one more obstacle for him to overcome. ‘He thought he could detect a malign pattern in his life – that he was always moving on, for some reason or other, and leaving something precious behind.’ Somehow, though, Cashel always picks himself up, dusts himself down and sets off anew. By the way, you’ll need to be patient for the significance of the image on the cover to be revealed.

The Romantic is quite a big book but the sheer zest with which Cashel’s story unfolds means it doesn’t feel like that. It’s a wonderfully entertaining romp through the 19th century with the most engaging travelling companion you could possibly hope for.  It’s an achievement of literary imagination that surely makes it a strong contender for the shortlist; some even tip it to be the winner.

In three words: Sweeping, witty, engaging

Try something similar: The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph

William Boyd

About the Author

William Boyd was born in 1952 in Accra, Ghana, and grew up there and in Nigeria. He is the author of sixteen highly acclaimed, bestselling novels and five collections of short stories. He is married and divides his time between London and south-west France. (Photo: Publisher author page)

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#BookReview The Settlement by Jock Serong

The SettlementAbout the Book

On the windswept point of an island at the edge of van Diemen’s Land, the Commandant huddles with a small force of white men and women.

He has gathered together, under varying degrees of coercion and duress, the last of the Tasmanians, or so he believes. His purpose is to save them—from a number of things, but most pressingly from the murderous intent of the pastoral settlers on their country.

The orphans Whelk and Pipi, fighting for their survival against the malevolent old man they know as the Catechist, watch as almost everything about this situation proves resistant to the Commandant’s will. The wind, the spread of disease, the strange black dog that floats in on the prow of a wrecked ship…

But above all the Chief, the leader of the exiles, before whom the Commandant performs a perverse, intimate dance of violence and betrayal.

Format: ebook (320 pages) Publisher: Text Publishing
Publication date: 30th August 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The Settlement is one of the books on the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2023. It’s probably not a book I would have come across had it not appeared on the list.  In the Acknowledgments section, the author refers to The Settlement as the third book in a trilogy – the previous books being (I think) Preservation and The Burning Island. As I didn’t discover this until I finished it, I can say with confidence that The Settlement can be read as a standalone.

I think we’re probably all aware of terrible injustices perpertrated on indigenous people over the centuries, particularly as a result of colonialism. (Arguably, they are still going on today.) In The Settlement the author focuses on one particularly heinous one, the true story of the forced resettlement of tribespeople from their traditional homeland in van Diemen’s Land (the colonial name for Tasmania) to Flinders Island by George Augustus Robinson.  Many of the events are drawn from Robinson’s own journal in which he recorded in meticulous detail events on the island.

Ostensibly aimed at protecting the tribespeople from murder by white settlers, the purpose of his so-called ‘Friendly Mission’ is to ‘Christianise and civilise’ them. Leaving aside the possibility that this is driven by genuine religious zeal (which actually doesn’t make it any more forgiveable) he believes success will bring him political advancement. What the book also reveals is Robinson’s involvement in frankly quite disgusting acts of desecration, purportedly in the name of science.  And the settlement turns out to be a place of disease and death for many of the tribespeople with the area of the graveyard set aside for them soon overflowing.  As one character remarks, ‘This place eats human lives’.

The only character with any redeeming features is the Storekeeper. (A clever feature of the book is that the non-indigenous characters are referred to only by the role they perform in the settlement – the Surgeon, the Commandant, the Overseer, etc – whereas the indigenous people retain their given names.) But even the Storekeeper turns a blind eye for a long while to the evil taking place.  Some of this involves the utterly vile Catechist, a violent and perverted individual who may even not be who he professes to be. The Storekeeper distracts himself with rum and by spending hours building a wall until he cannot stand by any longer.  Cleverly, the wall also acts as a metaphor for the colonialist’s desire to demonstrate proprietorship of land by creating artificial boundaries. ‘The wall, indeed all of the settlement’s fences, were lines that followed no contour in nature: in fact, they fought the contours, dividing one man’s ground from another’s, and some creatures from others. The old people, who’d lived in the other world, must have been baffled. Offended, even, since drawing lines on the land was where it all started.’

At the heart of the book is a betrayal, the breaking of a promise to Mannalargena, the leader of the tribe, that they will eventually be returned to their traditional homelands. History tells us Robinson’s enterprise ultimately resulted in failure; The Settlement graphically reveals the human cost of that failure.  However, two acts of resistance introduced into the novel stand as examples of the fight against oppression.

In three words: Uncompromising, intense, compelling

Try something similar: Mr Peacock’s Possessions by Lydia Syson

Jock SerongAbout the Author

Jock Serong’s novels have received the ARA Historical Novel Prize, the Colin Roderick Award, the Ned Kelly Award for First Fiction and, internationally, the inaugural Staunch Prize (UK) and the Historia Award for Historical Crime Fiction (France).  He lives with his family on Victoria’s far west coast. (Photo: Goodreads author page)