Book Review: Timbuctoo

Author: Tahir Shah
Originally Published: 2012
Length: 544 pages
Published by: Secretum Mundi
Why I read it: Review request
Where I got it: Publisher

Quick thoughts: A historical re-imagining which seems barely able to contain the author’s passion and exuberance.

“WHEN I SAW IT FIRST, I was lost in the bowels of the London Library, searching for an obscure volume on shrunken heads…

“A leather-bound book, an inch thick, jammed up against a water pipe. Without thinking, I reached up and yanked it out. Cupping the book gently in my hands, I pulled it open at the title page and began to read. That was the moment my obsession with The Narrative of Robert Adams began.”

This is how the author prologue begins, and it perfectly sets the stage for the story that follows. You can only imagine the impact of such a serendipitous moment as described here. It’s like finding a long-lost secret, something precious that hints at deeper and more hidden historical knowledge. And aren’t we all, to some degree or another, thrilled by the possibility of hidden knowledge, of an alternate account that questions our assumptions? That same surge of excitement courses through Tahir Shah’s Timbuctoo as he imagines the mania accompanying rumours of a mythical golden city, and the cover-up which could have been effected to hide the truth.

Shah’s love for the Regency era is blindingly obvious, and he fills every nook and cranny of the story with tender detail. The world he creates is lush, vibrant and altogether plausible. He also weaves in plot elements from across the social spectrum, creating a veritable tapestry of Regency life. The manifold plot lines were a distinct source of pleasure in that they seemed so unnecessary and superfluous at the outset, yet each thread of the story proved to be in some way essential by the end.

Although I personally prefer historical fiction where the author assiduously sticks to known facts, Shah’s exuberance begins to take on an appeal of its own. It’s not often that I let myself be swept away by a story with this much artistic license, but that tended to be the case here. It wasn’t just that the story moved along so fast, or that the constant intercutting of story lines always kept my attention engaged. It may sound a bit silly to say, but I think what made it work was the feeling that Shah actually cared about his creation. It was so pronounced as to be tangible, and most definitely contagious — like how you can’t keep yourself from smiling when you witness someone so utterly consumed by their own happiness that they are oblivious to the world around them. In the same way, I couldn’t help but smile even though the blurring of facts would normally trip me up.

That sense of care and devotion also extends to the physical presentation, where the end product is practically wrapped with a bow. While the size makes it a little inconvenient to tote about or read in the lunchroom, it really is quite stunning. The old-fashioned gold embossing on a faux-leather cover is eye-catching, and the gorgeously rendered fold-out maps occupied my attention for hours on end. Timbuctoo is undeniably a labour of love from Tahir Shah, and his passion for the material threatens to burst out of every seam.

As a sort of footnote, there’s also an accompanying website which serves as a complement to the novel. It’s worth checking out, and the attention to detail there will give a pretty good idea of what you can expect of the book.

From the publisher: Inspired by a true story…

In October 1815, an illiterate American sailor named Robert Adams was discovered roaming the streets of London, half-naked and starving. In the months that followed, high society was rocked by his tale.

At a time when the European powers were posturing for empire, there was one quest above all else, one destination to which no Christian had ever ventured and returned alive – Timbuctoo.

Regarded as a golden metropolis par excellence, an African Eldorado, fashioned from the purest gold, it was for centuries a European obsession. The British, Germans, French, and others, dispatched their most capable explorers to seek it out and to sack it.

Most of them never returned alive.

The only nation uninterested in the mania for Timbuctoo was the fledgling United States. And so, when a young American sailor claimed to have visited the city as a guest of its king, while a white slave in Africa, it caused uproar on an unknown scale.

More shocking still was the sailor’s description of the Eldorado – as a poverty-stricken and wretched place – and the fact that he seemed blasé and uninterested at having been there at all.

Set against a backdrop of the British Regency, a time of ultimate decadence and avarice, of haves and have-nots, Robert Adams’ tale has been all but forgotten, until now.

An astonishing story of survival and hardship, it’s a one touched with irony. A man who had set out to make his fame and fortune through trade, Robert Adams gained both, but by selling the tale of his journey.

Almost twenty years ago, Tahir Shah noticed an inch-thick quarto-sized book propping up a water pipe in the basement of the London Library. Pulling it out, he first set eyes on Robert Adams’ Narrative, published by John Murray in 1816.

The book became an obsession to Shah, just as Regency London was itself fixated with the golden metropolis of Timbuctoo. Packed with well-researched detail of the time, and inspired by Adams’ ordeal, TIMBUCTOO is a fast-past and compelling read. It’s a tale of treachery, greed, love, betrayal and, above all else, of survival in the face of insurmountable odds.

Tahir ShahTahir Shah’s books have appeared in thirty languages and in more than seventy editions. They are celebrated for their original viewpoint, and for combining hardship with vivid description.

He also makes documentary films, which are shown worldwide on National Geographical Television, and The History Channel. The latest, LOST TREASURE OF AFGHANISTAN, has been screened on British TV and shown worldwide. While researching the programme Shah was arrested along with his film crew and incarcerated in a Pakistani torture jail, where they spent sixteen terrifying days and nights.

His other documentaries include: HOUSE OF THE TIGER KING, SEARCH FOR THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, and THE SEARCH FOR KING SOLOMON’S MINES. And, in addition to documentaries, Shah writes for the big screen. His best known work in this genre is the award-winning Imax feature JOURNEY TO MECCA, telling the tale of the fourteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta’s first pilgrimage to Mecca.

Tahir Shah lives at Dar Khalifa, a sprawling mansion set squarely in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown. He’s married to the graphic designer, Rachana Shah, and has two children, Ariane and Timur. His father was the Sufi writer, Idries Shah.