What I read: The Romantic by William Boyd

The Romantic William Boyd Book Review Penguin South Africa Roelia ReadsAbout the book

(blurb from Penguin Random House SA):

From one of Britain’s best-loved and bestselling writers comes an intimate yet panoramic novel set in the 19th century

A new “whole life” novel from William Boyd, the author of Any Human Heart. Set in the 19th century, the novel follows the roller-coaster fortunes of a man as he tries to negotiate the random stages, adventures, and vicissitudes of his life. He is variously a soldier, a lover, a husband, a father, a friend of famous poets, a writer, a bankrupt, a jailbird, a farmer, an African explorer – and many other manifestations – before, finally, he becomes a minor diplomat, a consul based in Trieste (then in Austria-Hungary) where he thinks he will see out the end of his days in well-deserved tranquility. This will not come to pass…

My Thoughts

I have a confession to make.

This is the first William Boyd book I ever read.  Especially strange if you consider this award-winning author’s sterling reputation and the fact that one of his previous novels. Any Human Heart, is often recommended as a “must read” book.  Even more so,  the fact that one of my favourite people on earth (as if we actually know each other on a personal level), Richard Osman, also quotes William Boyd to be his most-loved author, I feel I am a bit late to the party.  But there is always space on my reading shelf, so all is not lost!

What an entertaining book “The Romantic” was!  It reads as the fictional biography of one Cashel Greville Ross, and was so realistic that I actually considered checking the internet to see if I could not find more information or photos of him.  Because that is what you do when reading a biography, not so?

But alas, it is indeed a work of fiction, and immensely enjoyable. From my research, William Boyd is a true master of the “whole life novel” and “The Romantic” spans the entire lifetime of our protagonist.  It tells the story of a boy born in Ireland, recounting his remarkable, full existence, until the end of his life as an eighty-something elderly gentleman.

Spanning almost the entirety of the 19th century, the author vividly recounts true historical events, places, and persons.  The book is written in the first person, giving it even more power as an apparent autobiography.  Cashel Ross lives through the battle of Waterloo, meets Lord Byron and Sir Richard Burton (the explorer), befriends Percy and Mary Shelly, and go searching for the eye of the Nile – with fact and fiction entwined effortlessly.  He is living through historical moments and meeting iconic persons, and I was pulled in, every step of the way.

This book also reads like a 19th Century travel journal, as the story follows Cashel’s travels and extensive explorations across the globe – including India, Europe, America and Africa. What I enjoyed was that Cashel is a flawed character, not always on the right side of the law, but always following his gut instinct.  He made some interesting and sometimes compulsive decisions, with varying degrees of success.

There were some areas where I needed “more” though.  I wanted more in-depth insight into the female characters in Cashel’s life, especially his mother and his lovers.  Some of the female characters felt a bit one-dimensional to me.  But, on the other hand, seeing that this is told in the first person, we only have his perspective and discernments.  The book is also so packed with events, adventures and travels, that some sections did feel a bit rushed.

William Boyd is a master storyteller and weaved a fascinating tale.  The writing is beautiful, richly descriptive, and joyful.  What a charming and compelling work of historic and literary fiction!

Thank you to Penguin Random House SA for the opportunity to read this book. 

The Details:

ISBN 9780241542033
Format Trade Paperback
Recommended Price R320.00
Published November 2022

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