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The Romantic by William Boyd

One of the things that author William Boyd does so well is to write the lives of others. But rather than biography, he writes fiction that sometimes pretends to be genuine. Any Human Heart is one of his most famous books and uses a series of journals to create the fictitious life of an English writer. His most famous use of such deceptions was the book called Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960. This was not revealed as a work of fiction when it was first published in 1998 and at the lavish launch, where there were readings by David Bowie and Gore Vidal, some prominent members of the art world claimed to remember the artist. You can imagine their horror when it emerged the whole book was entirely fiction. Boyd’s forte is to make ordinary things feel real.

Boyd has plenty of credential as a writer who creates believable characters set in genuine moments from history. In his latest novel, The Romantic, he does it again to great effect. He creates the wonderful character of Cashel Greville Ross, and proceeds to insert him into numerous famous moments of the nineteenth century. Ross is a young man at the battle of Waterloo, then with the army in India, and later in African hunting the source of the Nile he encounters the famous English explorer Sir Richard Burton. As a young man in Italy he spends time with Keats and Byron, gets to befriend Mary Shelley, and while in America he starts a small brewery of German beer.

Boyd teases us at the start of the novel with an Author’s Note in which he claims to have in his possession:

‘…a hundred pages of handwritten reminiscences, dated December 1881, along with tied bundles of letters received, drafts of letters sent, some little sketches, maps and plans, some photographs, some published books filled with notes and marginalia, some small paintings, etchings and silhouettes and a few objects – a tinder box, a musket ball, a belt buckle, a tiny brittle lock of hair tied with a faded silk ribbon, a few silver dollars, a fragment of Greek amphora, and so on.’

Little do we realise on this very first page that all these items will be a significant part of the narrative. They are forgotten a few pages later as the skill of the narrative takes over, but are worth revisiting once you have read the final page.

The great thing about the book is how it maintains both the narrative over an eighty-year lifespan and also over 450 pages. The pace never drops and events never flag. It really is the sign of a great story teller to be able to maintain the reader’s interest and enthusiasm so effortlessly. Not only that, but at the same time we travel the world, from seemingly humble beginnings in western Ireland, to Oxford to France and then Italy, to India and America before Africa, and back to London, Trieste and Venice.

Amongst all these adventures hides a gentle love story. While Cashel Greville Ross has plenty of encounters, it is in the Italian city of Ravenna that he encounters Raphaella, who remains throughout the one great love of his life. She is always a married woman, and he is never in the right place when she is without a husband, but the two embark on an illicit affair that binds them together forever. Alas, they are destined to never be together for more than brief snatches of time.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Penguin Random House


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