I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish this book, especially after the writing style seemed a little too full of itself, maybe even pretentious. And full of unfamiliar words — either outdated or foreign to me — that required a quick search of the dictionary to keep me going. It reminded me of other German historical fiction books I’d tried to read and quit on, but I kept going.
I am glad that I persisted, because it really was an enjoyable read. Not having known anything about Sir Richard Francis Burton, I became intrigued by this English explorer who was curious about the world and the people in it, and set himself apart from his fellow explorers in many ways.
The story is split into three main sections, each focusing on a different place Burton visited: India and Pakistan, the Middle East, and Eastern Africa. Each section switches between Burton and other individuals, either servants who helped him in his travels or outsiders trying to figure him out. We see his attempts to learn more about the places he visits and the people he meets, including his difficulty in sharing his interest and curiosity with his fellow Englishmen.
The only downside to the book is that it can take some work to get through, so don’t expect a bit of light reading. Some sections get a bit weighty in philosophy or theology, either due to the content or the flowery writing. And it’s best to have a dictionary (or the Internet) handy, since the included glossary — which I found a bit too late — didn’t have definitions for everything, and sometimes the meaning isn’t clear from the context.
That said, I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction that features traveling or a great adventure as the main theme. Although it wavers a bit towards the end, the story is a pretty intriguing one that kept my interest throughout.
I’ve only read one other book by W. Somerset Maugham — Cakes and Ale — and I didn’t realize that some of his other works were slightly more contemporary, including The Painted Veil. The story follows a young English couple who get married, despite their not really being a loving couple, and then relocating to part of China, where the husband is going to work for the British government. The wife is the main focus though, and so we see her struggling with her marriage and this new life, and she eventually realizes just how selfish and uncaring she is.
The story was all right, but I had a hard time reading on, because I hated the main character so much. She was really quite a despicable character, very selfish and spoiled, and without any consideration for other people, especially her husband. I’d say it was an all right read, but I don’t really feel any urge to read other works by Maugham.
I heard about the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser while watching a British show, in which various TV personalities shared some of the books that had made an impact on them in their lives. I can’t remember who had mentioned Flashman, but it sounded interesting, despite his disclaimer about some of the main character’s behavior.
I started with the first book in the series, presently titled as just Flashman, which introduces you to the character of the same name through papers supposedly found among his belongings after he died. He chronicles part of his childhood and experiences in a private school, and then jumps to the beginning of his military career, starting with training and then in traveling to the British colonies of India and Afghanistan.
You soon realize that Flashman is not as great a hero as others have found him to be. He is rather cowardly and is only interested in his own well-being, even causing another man’s death by running away from danger instead of fighting. He also does some pretty awful things, like raping a woman he meets while traveling; some people may have considered this acceptable at the time, but it’s hard to read about it in today’s times, even with that context.
Initially, I thought this book was interesting, but as Flashman’s true character became revealed, I had a harder time reading on. I tried to take him for what he was and read with that in mind, but eventually, I just had to skim to finish, and decided not to read further books in the series. The books aren’t badly written, but without anyone to cheer for, I just didn’t enjoy reading about Flashman.