A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason: Stories of history, science, discovery and outsiders

Cover image for A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earthby Daniel Mason Historical novelist Daniel Mason’s name will be well known to many readers, I’m sure. I remember The Piano Tuner causing quite a stir when it was published back in 2002 but it didn’t appeal to me. You might wonder, then, why I picked up A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth but its multitude of different settings made it an attractive prospect, given I’m unlikely to be travelling in reality any time soon. Mason’s collection takes its readers from Ancient Egypt to twentieth-century Rio de Janeiro and many points in between, each piece pleasingly prefaced with an illustration from an appropriate historical source.

Four of the nine stories that make up this collection stood out for me. Ironically, given that travel yen, the first is set in Bristol, a ten-minute train ride away in the normal run of things. Death of the Pugilist, or the Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman Mcgraw is the tale of a young nineteenth-century stevedore, groomed for the fight of his life against an old, celebrated bruiser which reminded me a little of Anna Freeman’s Bristol-set novel, The Fair Fight all about eighteenth-century female boxing. The Ecstasy of Alfred Russel Wallace sees the young, self-taught Wallace in the midst of an expedition. Flattered by his correspondence with Charles Darwin, Wallace has written a letter to his hero and is distressed by the lack of response, attributing it to his own stupidity while the truth is entirely different. Leaping forward to twentieth-century California, a man remembers his Polish immigrant uncle and his inexplicable passion for Civil War enactments in which he willingly played an unpopular role in The Union Dead. On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c takes us up into the skies, delivering a surprise as a female balloonist seeks to recreate her vision of an apparent rent in the sky, this time with a witness.

Fifteen years in the writing, much of Mason’s collection explores history, science and a thirst for knowledge often through the perspective of outsiders. Many of his stories are vivid, memorably capturing both the theatre of nineteenth-century pugilism and the astonishing richness of the natural world Wallace encounters. There’s often a playful humour underpinning their themes – a doctor’s increasingly frequent seizures which result in a better version of himself much to his wife’s delight in The Second Doctor Service is particularly pleasing. Just one piece didn’t work for me and that was the titular story about the Brazilian schizophrenic artist Bispo do Rosario which took the form of a catalogue of found pieces from which he made his art. It certainly conveyed a disordered mind but a little too incoherently for my taste although Cathy at What Cathy Read Next loved it. An interesting collection, full of colourful images whose jacket fits it beautifully.

Mantle: London 9781529038491 230 pages Hardback

14 thoughts on “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason: Stories of history, science, discovery and outsiders”

  1. Thanks for the mention! Initially, when I started that final story I was thinking I don’t get this at all. But I let it flow and once I’d researched the artist it made more ‘sense’, if that isn’t an inappropriate word. I found it rather sad and an intriguing attempt to get inside a disordered mind. The author’s profession as a psychiatrist is clearly relevant.

    1. I felt that I probably wasn’t giving the story the credit it deserved so was pleased to see your perspective on it, Cathy. Perhaps I should give it another try.

  2. I’ve just picked this up last night to read. I like the style of the first story so I’m hoping that continues throughout the rest of the book.

  3. I’m drawn to Mason because of his dual identity as a psychiatrist and a writer. I enjoyed the medical detail in The Winter Soldier but found it overall a bit too predictable as love stories go. I might try The Piano Tuner when my library reopens, but I’m more keen to get hold of this one. I’m especially interested in the story on Alfred Russel Wallace.

    1. ‘Rich’ actually fits it very well. I can’t say it’s converted me to Mason’s writing but it certainly transported me to different worlds which is no mean feat.

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