In setting out to discover what those missing years held, Balfour Paul found so many intersections between her own life and his that ‘I couldn’t tell whether I was stalking him or he was stalking me’.
Looking back on her youth as a ‘quasi hippy’ and relating how she ran barefoot through the Delhi streets to hear Ravi Shankar perform in 1970, she comments ‘sometimes I seem to have more in common with Thomas than with my own former self’. But such knowledge can be painful, involving as it does knowing the endings to other people’s stories. Machell’s journals tell of a love affair he had on a Polynesian island; Balfour Paul discovers what happened to his lover after he left, and can only hope he never learned as much for himself.
Throughout her investigations the details of a fascinating history accumulate: she learns that Machell’s family estate had been sold to pay off gambling debts, only to be subsequently reclaimed for the family by a rather more successful gambler; that Machell himself witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, ‘a minor character at a major event’.
Every detail brings them closer, so much so that when she visits his childhood home, Balfour Paul is so overcome by the memories she has accumulated by proxy that she bursts into tears. It’s hardly a surprise when, towards the close, an apparently mystical experience suggests an even closer connection between them.
This is a strikingly original book, full of fact and feeling.
DEEPER THAN INDIGO: Tracing Thomas Machell, forgotten explorer by Jenny Balfour Paul, Medina Publishing, £22.95 (hardback)
This book review was published in the July 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine