Review: Timbuctoo, by Tahir Shah

Tahir Shah

Product Description (from
For centuries, the greatest explorers of their age were dispatched from the power-houses of Europe London, Paris and Berlin on a quest unlike any other: To be the first white Christian to visit, and then to sack, the fabled metropolis of Timbuctoo.

Most of them never returned alive.

At the height of the Timbuctoo mania, two hundred years ago, it was widely believed that the elusive Saharan city was fashioned in entirety from the purest gold everything from the buildings to the cobble-stones, from the buckets to the bedsteads was said to be made from it.

One winter night in 1815, a young illiterate American seaman named Robert Adams was discovered half-naked and starving on the snow-bound streets of London. His skin seared from years in the African desert, he claimed to have been a guest of the King of Timbuctoo.

Thought of an American claiming anything let alone the greatest prize in exploration was abhorrent in the extreme. Closing ranks against their unwelcome American guest, the British Establishment lampooned his tale, and began a campaign of discrediting him, one that continues even today.

An astonishing tale based on true-life endurance, Tahir Shah s epic novel Timbuctoo brilliantly recreates the obsessions of the time, as a backdrop for one of the greatest love stories ever told.

My Thoughts:
Ever since I first read Katherine Neville’s The Eight when it first came out in the spring of 1989, I’ve fantasized about visiting places like Algeria and Morocco and, yes, even Timbuktu (as we spell it in modern English). As well, one of my favorite adventure stories is that of the folks from Citroen sponsoring the first crossing of the Sahara by automobile, specifically their Citroen half-track. You can imagine, then, how eagerly I leaped at the chance to review Tahir Shah’s novel from last summer, Timbuctoo.

I initially began reading it in late autumn, intending to be done with all my to-be-reviewed books before Thanksgiving, but work and other projects pulled me away from much reading at all, so I didn’t get to finish the novel until this week. It was worth the wait, and my apologies go to the author for my delay. That said, reading about the Sahara region in the 1800s was an odd juxtaposition with the news of Algeria’s attack on Mali (where Timbuktu actually IS) and the subsequent hostage situation. One story kept influencing my perspective of the other.

Even so, every time I found myself paying too much attention to the real world, I would return to Mr. Shah’s lovely novel, and lose myself in the British vs. American manners, and the challenge of a race to explore, conquer, collect, and the internal discoveries made by his characters, and I was continually enthralled by his deft use of language, his enchanting manner of storytelling (letters, descriptive chapter titles, and characters with very distinct point of views.) which marries a modern sensibility with the distinct culture of the slightly-pre-Victorian colonial age.

Even if you’ve never dreamed of trekking across the Sahara, I’m sure you’ll find Timbuctoo an interesting and compelling read.

Goes well with…mint tea and chicken shawarma.