You never what to expect in a William Boyd novel but – like Any Human Heart – this is a sweeping cradle-to-grave story of Cashel Ross set in the nineteenth century.
Cashel was born in Cork. He was told his parents had died when their boat capsized and he was brought up by his Scottish aunt who was governess to an aristocrat Sir Guy Stilwell.
In fact these two were his real parents.
Cashel is an adventurer.
He leaves Cork to enlist in the army as a drummer boy and fights at Waterloo.
He then joins the East India Company Regiment in Ceylon where locals are murdered by the army.
After that he returns to London where he becomes a successful novelist though he is swindled by his publisher; a pioneer farmer in Boston; and, of all things, the Nicaraguan Consul in Trieste.
The constant theme is his love for Raffaella with whom he has an affaire in Ravenna. He does marry later in Boston but his wife goes insane.
Aside from being a rattling good yarn, there is fascinating social detail on food, drink, dress, locations and army life.
In his somewhat hectic journey through life Cashel meets Mary Shelley and her poet husband Lord Byron and also the explorer Richard Burton after his journey to find the source of the Nile.
Once again this most diverse and engaging of novelists has come up trumps.
Above all he can tell a story well, a gift many writers do not possess but the best – like Daphne du Maurier – do.