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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / biography

Try Not to be Strange

Michael Hingston

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To purchase Try Not to be Strange

Title: Try Not to be Strange
Author: Michael Hingston
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 329 pages
Availability: Try Not to be Strange - US
Try Not to be Strange - UK
Try Not to be Strange - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Biblioasis
  • The Curious History of the Kingdom of Redonda
  • With numerous photographs

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining and good overview of the bizarre place/concept and the people behind it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Quill & Quire . 9/2022 Kevin Hardcastle
The Spectator . 26/11/2022 Leaf Arbuthnot
TLS . 23-30/12/2022 Michael Saler
Toronto Star A 16/9/2022 Robert J. Wiersema
The Washington Post A 6/10/2022 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hingston’s exploration of the Kingdom of Redonda is almost a literary detective story. (...) Try Not to Be Strange is a passionate and skilfully written exploration of an extraordinary world and those who search for such places to get to the heart of what stories really mean. Hingston’s thirst for deeper knowledge is palpable, and it illuminates what the kingdom might really stand for" - Kevin Hardcastle, Quill & Quire

  • "I can see booksellers scratching their heads over where to shelve it. Part memoir, part travelogue, it’s also a beer-soaked history of pub-going in mid-20th-century Soho, and an exhaustive record of a made up and deeply eccentric monarchy. (...) A thread running through the book, which mars its fun, is how dreadful the first two kings were as citizens. (...) I imagine some won’t be charmed -- the kingdom is essentially an elaborate joke, embroidered upon by generations of slightly addled, often desperate and mainly male egotists -- but I was. " - Leaf Arbuthnot, The Spectator

  • "Michael Hingston set himself the challenging task of determining what all of this means, if anything. (...) Hingston’s dogged research ultimately yields more questions than answers. (...) Michael Hingston’s captivating history underscores the affinity between Marías’s preoccupations as an artist and the peculiar interplay of the real and fictional that defines the kingdom. Marías was uninterested in playing a game of thrones, but he was committed to the rules of fiction, which he likened to a “game” redeeming the meaningless chaos of existence." - Michael Saler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(E)nthralling and delightfully odd (.....) The book is either a cautionary tale about literary obsession or a gleeful exploration of bibliophilic fetishism, depending on how you read it. (...) That spirit, the tongue-in-cheek mock seriousness of the whole endeavour, and the playfulness of its participants, is a keen factor in Try Not to Be Strange. The book is a delightful reading experience, utterly unexpected and unlike anything you are likely to read this year. Hingston cannily balances between writerly fidelity to the truth and the sheer absurdity he so often finds. (...) Try Not to Be Strange is grand, good fun." - Robert J. Wiersema, Toronto Star

  • "(A) wonderfully entertaining book, an account of how its Canadian author grew fascinated with a literary jape, a kind of role-playing game or shared-world fantasy involving some of the most eccentric and some of the most famous writers of modern times. (...) In Try Not to Be Strange, Hingston relates all this whimsy, with abundant anecdotes, in the manner of A.J.A. Symons’s 1934 classic, The Quest for Corvo, which transformed writing a biography into an intensely personal adventure." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Redonda is a small, uninhabited island in the Caribbean that is officially part of the country of Antigua and Barbuda; it is also the 'Kingdom of Redonda' -- an entity that, as author Michael Hingston puts it, has always: "floated somewhere in between fantasy and reality". Several noteworthy authors -- M.P.Shiel, John Gawsworth, and Javier Marías -- have played the part of king, and there have been a gaggle of others claiming the would-be throne of the very unofficial kingdom. In Try Not to be Strange Hingston chronicles how he learned about this half-real place, and his growing obsession with it: as one of the supposed kings tells him: "Everybody who starts to dig into Redonda gets captured by it", and that certainly proves true in Hingston's case The book is both a history of the place(s) -- the real as well as the surreal one -- and a chronicle of Hingston's journey of discovery.
       Contemporary readers are most likely to have first learnt of the Kingdom of Redonda as Hingston did, through the works of Javier Marías -- specifically the novels All Souls and Dark Back of Time -- but he is not the first author who brought it to the attention of a larger audience, as the story has long made for good newspaper-fodder and pub conversation. Indeed, the first two kings of Redonda were also colorful characters who had good fun with the concept -- with Try Not to be Strange of considerable interest just as an introduction to M.P.Shiel and John Gawsworth and their lives, which were quite fascinating even aside from the Redondan angle.
       Shiel was born in Montserrat, and it was his father who claimed the island and, in 1880, installed young Matthew Jr. as king (or at least had a ceremony to that effect). Shiel in no way ruled over the physical island, which, for several decades, was a rich source of first guano and then aluminum phosphate, valuable commodities that were mined there. The mining was shut down during the First World War, and the place was soon basically uninhabited. (Difficult to dock at and generally inhospitable-- the island is like a big rock rising out of the sea -- it is not a very welcoming place in real life.) Still, across the Atlantic, Shiel's claim to the throne made for a good story.
       Shiel eventually found support also in young go-getter John Gawsworth, a remarkable figure in his own right who would become the: "youngest fellow ever elected to the Royal Society of Literature". Named Shiel's literary executor, Gawsworth also inherited the throne -- and made the most of it. (He also kept the ashes of the cremated Shiel, a story in and of itself .....) As Hingston notes:

On a fundamental level, Gawsworth knew he was putting something ridiculous into the world. But he had also decided that Redonda only worked if you never broke character. No more of Shiel's self-deprecating stance towards the kingdom: Redonda under King Juan would be defined by a total straight-faced commitment to the bit.
       So with official papers and liberally handing out official titles, Gawsworth played the role for all it was worth (with Marías eventually adopting a similar approach).
       Gawsworth did gum the works some as: "In times of desperation, he had more than once sold the kingdom off for cash", leading to the various claims on the throne that make for the particularly messy more recent history of the kingdom, as: "Since 1970, more than a dozen different people have claimed to be the one true ruler of Redonda". Hingston dutifully follows up on the various claims and gets in contact with some of the claimants and their heirs -- an amusing cast of characters, mostly not taking any of this all too seriously as well.
       Just how hard some people have in taking the whole concept seriously is suggested by one of Hingston's more amusing anecdotes, tucked in a footnote:
Home referred to his Redonda as a "sovereign buccaneer kingdom," and said his claim would be far better known were it not for the meddling of a woman who, he said, borrowed some of his original documents in order to update the kingdom's Wikipedia entry, then claimed the documents were "boring" and threw them away.
       Among the amusing (if unsurprising) things about the claims to the throne is how few of the claimants actually ever set foot on the island: the Kingdom of Redonda is, in a sense, the ultimate colonial holding, a distant place (supposedly) held by a monarch who, in practically every case, has not even visited it -- with none spending anything but the briefest time there. But the fact that Redonda is not a purely imagined place, that there is a there there (and a not unimposing-looking one at that), does give the whole story -- and the claims to the throne -- weight they otherwise could not have.
       Aside from simply chronicling the kingdom's strange history, Hingston also describes his own journey of exploration and obsession in Try Not to be Strange. This includes visiting archives, buying Redonda-related material -- he accumulates quite the hoard --, and, finally, setting off to visit the place itself, the real island of Redonda.
       As so often, reality falls a bit short of hopes and expectations -- let's just sum up that after venturing there Hingston insists: "I wouldn't go back to that fucking island if you paid me" -- but then the 'Kingdom of Redonda' was always something very different from the mere rocky island that nominally makes up its territory
       (In fact, Hingston's description of the present-day island is also of interest, as he notes that during its (economic) heyday, the Redonda Phosphate Company had also managed to introduce goats and rats to the island, which wreaked havoc on the local environment -- but an Environmental Awareness Group began to take an interest in the place, and in recent years cleared out the sixty-odd goats and the thousands of rats, and the island's environment has recovered nicely.)
       Try Not to be Strange is an enjoyable account of a bizarre not-quite-real place, with a rich cast of characters -- not least Hingston himself, who amusingly tracks his own obsessiveness.
       Certainly, for now, the standard text on the Kingdom of Redonda -- complete with appendices that include the national anthem, complete with music for readers who want to play or sing along ... -- Try Not to be Strange is a good introduction to the place, and its history and the interesting figures that have played the central roles in it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 October 2022

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Try Not to be Strange: Reviews: Redonda: Michael Hingston: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Michael Hingston was born in 1985.

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© 2022 the complete review

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