Secret codes, ancient mysteries, adventure stories, treasures, oversized fold-out maps, a hidden pocket in the back binding, and a satin ribbon for a marker.

(I know, it sounds too good to be true, but read on: it’s really quite marvellous.)

Put that together with a passion for history and storytelling (love and betrayal, mystical societies and conspiracies, madness and discovery) and you have Tahir Shah’s novel Timbuctoo.

Authors often speak of writing the book that they themselves want to read, and it’s easy to believe that Tahir Shah has done just that, combining all of the above elements into a single work.

The author has, in fact, published fifteen books and made several documentary films, believing that “there’s nothing so important as deciphering the hidden underbelly of the lands through which he travels”.*

Timbuctoo is a story which had also been hidden, based on the discovery of a slave narrative written by Robert Adams and published by John Murray in 1816 (a reproduction is included in the book, but don’t peek ahead).

The subtitle of Tahir Shah’s work encapsulates the spirit and contents of this document perfectly: “Being a Singular And Most Animated Account of an Illiterate American Sailor Taken as a Slave in the Great Zahara and, after Trials and Tribulations Aplenty, Reaching London Where He Narrated His Tale”.

(Animated. Aplenty. Yes, indeed. The language is lush, just slightly overdone, suiting this sort of tale.)

There are fourteen other books included in the bibliography (several primary sources, some secondary) which readers can turn to after they have read Shah’s narrative.

But, first, they will want to unravel the mystery of the maps.

The maps are pulled from Richard Horwood’s late-eighteenth-century project to document London in astonishing detail. He was using a scale of 26 inches to a mile and began canvassing subscriptions in 1790, finally publishing the last of the 32 sheets of the map in 1799.

A handful of segments are reproduced and arranged throughout Timbuctoo so that the reader can unfold them and study them at length. (You can see samples of the six reproduced maps here.)




(Details here.)

You may have noticed that I’ve said all this without once referring to Timbuctoo. It’s not a mythic place, but a real place, which the book’s FAQ page explains:

“The city is located in modern Mali, less than ten miles north of the Niger River. Fought over and taken numerous times throughout history, Timbuctoo was always a distant outpost in the Sahara, a place dedicated to Islamic scholarship and to learning.”

But that’s just geography. The reason that it was considered so desirable? Its treasure, partly. But there’s more to it than that. (This is a long quote, but it gives an idea of the style too.)

“Timbuctoo represents far more than the treasure that may or may not be there. It’s about a fantasy, a legend, a myth of the golden city.”
“The treasure is not as important as the legend…. It’s like the aroma given off by a delicious apple pie. The smell has no value except to heighten one’s desire. It’s the same as Timbuctoo. The Committee has raised a far greater fortune through public subscription than it could ever hope to acquire through the expedition. The coffers are full to bursting. I’ve seen the balance sheets myself. All of it given in good faith, pledged for the benefit of the Committee. Sir Geoffrey and the directors have their fortune already, and there’s no need to haul it back from darkest Africa.”

Fantasy. Legend. Desire. Fortune. Faith.

You can also see these things here, too : excitement, compulsion, and simmering corruption. Very intriguing.

And there is a love of story. Consider this second excerpt, which introduces a minor character into London’s Regency setting, with a Dickensian flair for the working man’s day and the attention paid to class (and tongue secured in cheek).

“In the collection room the animals were being dusted by Herman Feosch, who had been kept on a retainer to ensure the animals were herded back to the Collection room once the Prince was finished with them. He was also charged with raking the thick layer of sand that had been imported from Norfolk, and sieving it of shells.
Frosch had been born in Hamburg, and was the son of a bookkeeper who had wedded a former mistress to royalty. The noble association was a source of considerable pride, and allowed him to let his delusions wander a little further than they might have.”

(Yes, that’s a long one too, but this novel’s style is consistent throughout. If you are not comfortable wih the mix of antiquated style with contemporary sensibility, Timbuctoo will not be a match for you. Pulling a sample from the segments of narrative set in Africa would risk spoiling Adams’ tale, so this will suffice.)

The novel is more than 500 pages long, though with generous margins and the text set in Bulmer, appropriate for the story’s time and place and a pleasure for weary reading eyes. It is designed with care (the author is married to a designer) and deliberation, with loyalty to the vision of the work taking precedence over practicality and marketing concerns.

Had it been printed two hundred years ago, one could imagine readers queuing up for Timbuctoo just as one of the characters clamours for the most recent Jane Austen (and then consoles herself with Mansfield Park instead).

Readers today can spot some two-hundred-year-old bookstores (and a hot chocolate shop) on Richard Horwood’s maps, if they’re keen to imagine standing in that line themselves.

(Alternatively, you can buy online. And, yes, the mystery can still be solved with the e-publication.)

Now, come on, doesn’t a book with its own ribbon make your reader’s heart beat faster?

* Taken from his biography online