Book Review: Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark by Jane Fletcher Geniesse

PassionateNomadCoverOfficial Synopsis from Amazon: Freya Stark—traveler, explorer, Arabist, and woman of letters—began the extraordinary adventures that would glamorize her—and would catapult her into public life for the next sixty years—in 1927. And with the publication of The Valley of the Assassins in 1934, her legend was launched.

Leaving behind a miserable family life, Freya set out, at the age of thirty-four, to explore remote and dangerous regions of the Middle East. She was captured in 1927 by the French military police after penetrating their cordon around the rebellious Druze. She explored the mountainous territory of the mysterious Assassins of Persia, became the first woman to explore Luristan in western Iran, and followed ancient frankincense routes to locate a lost city. Admired by British officialdom, her knowledge of Middle Eastern languages and culture aided the military and diplomatic corps, for whom she conceived an effective propaganda network during WWII.

But Stark’s indomitable spirit was forged by contradictions, her high-profile wanderings often masking deep insecurities. A child of privilege, she grew up in near poverty; she longed for love, but consistently focused on the wrong men. This is a brilliant and balanced biography—filled with sheikhs, diplomats, nomad warriors and chieftains, generals, would be lovers, and luminaries. Author Jane Geniesse digs beneath the mythology to uncover a complex, quixotic, and controversial woman.

Genre: Biography, Non-fiction
Setting: Freya Stark lived from 1893-1993 and traveled primarily in the Middle East. Passionate Nomad takes us to Italy, England, Damascus, Baghdad, Yemen, Cairo, and many other places.
My copy came from: I got my copy from paperbackswap.com.

And NEW!: This post contains affiliate links!


Review: What a woman! Freya Stark is one fascinating, brave soul. In a word, she is a “kick”. Stubborn, rebellious, solitary, and highly intelligent, Freya Stark decides, at the age of 34, to head out to the Middle East, and her story is absolutely fascinating. She had a tough upbringing, and survived a horrific factory accident at a young age, and Passionate Nomad traces Freya throughout her life.

Told with many quotes of both Freya’s writing and letters, and others’ letters, Passionate Nomad did read a bit dry in parts, but as a whole I was glued to the page. Some of Freya’s antics are downright hilarious, and others will have your jaw dropping. She sure was a lady who knew her mind and followed her dreams! I have such admiration for someone following their dream later in life. Freya was 34 when she first set out to the Middle East, and I truly found her and all of her journeys inspirational.

When Freya traveled, she liked to stay where the local people stayed, and ate their food, drank their water, and talked to them. She learned many different languages and dialects throughout her travels, and she helped with the cartography of the various regions. She was a mountain climber, scaling the Matterhorn, and other peaks. Since she didn’t take any precautions with food or water, she was constantly ill, and she survived many different diseases: typhoid, dysentery, and malaria, to name a few (the full list is incredibly long!).

Some of her antics were hilarious, like when she and her friend Venetia, travel to the Druze from Damascus on donkeys through the French occupied area. When the French police pick them up, the men are so astounded that two women would be willingly traveling there for fun! And then there’s this fabulous scene:

Freya was by no means sure that she wanted to be a run-of-the-mill wage earner, even if the job were in journalism. She was, however, quite clear about how she expected to be treated. On her very first day, when none of her male co-workers glanced up as she entered the newsroom, she cast a steely look over the array of desks and announced to their occupants that henceforth when she arrived they must stand up. “Office women are to be thought of as queens,” she declared grandly. Astonished, her colleagues complied.

There are many similar scenes with Freya making some fabulous remark, and other people standing around dumbfounded by her audacity. I loved it! This quality was great to read, as it made for tension between her and many different people. But also, I could see how she could be a difficult person to get along with, as she was somewhat disorganized, and was very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants woman in terms of travel plans and life in general. There are many hilarious scenes where Freya would work her magic and end up somewhere she shouldn’t be, much to the chagrin of many.

Freya had many relationship problems, both romantic and friendship-wise, throughout her entire life. A lot of this stems from her factory accident, and her desire for love and to be beautiful, which lead to intense jealousy of younger and prettier women. Reading about all of her different relationships and the beginning and breakdown of them was fascinating and heartbreaking.

Along with Freya’s story, the author weaves in a lot of geography and history about the different areas in the Middle East that Freya travels to. Most of this was interesting, if the delivery was somewhat dry. I found myself getting really bogged down in the WWII section, as there was a lot of information and I wasn’t exactly sure what to focus on. This was a minor issue though, and I wrote a lot of things down to look up online later, and this book was so very illuminating for me.

Passionate Nomad was a book club read for me, and I’m so glad that my friend chose this for our selection this month! I vaguely recall hearing the name Freya Stark prior to reading this, but am not sure where I heard it. But now, after reading Passionate Nomad, I won’t forget the name of Freya Stark. This is a name that we should know, for her contributions to cartography and travel writing, and she’s just an inspiring woman! I highly recommend this biography to anyone who enjoys strong women, books about travel, books set in the Middle East, or to anyone who wants to learn. I really enjoyed this read!

Bottom Line: Passionate Nomad was informative and fascinating, with a strong woman at the helm. I’ll never forget the name Freya Stark now!


Links to Passionate Nomad on Amazon (this is an affiliate link which means I get a small commission if you click that link and purchase something!) &  Goodreads

Word of Warning: I read the paperback version, and the font size is incredibly small in the paperback. So small, that when I first saw the print, I thought that there was no way I could read it without a magnifying glass and that I’d have to purchase the Kindle version. However, once I started reading, I got so involved in Freya’s life, that I didn’t notice how small the print was. One of my fellow book club members did have to stop reading the paperback and switch to the Kindle, as the font was too small for her.

There is a documentary out right now, called Letters From Baghdad, and this documentary traces the life of Gertrude Bell, a British explorer who came before Freya, and was somewhat Freya’s nemesis. Gertrude Bell died in 1926, and Freya began her journeys in 1927. Freya was constantly comparing her accomplishments to Gertrude Bell’s, and this documentary looks very interesting!


Have you read Passionate Nomad? Have you heard of Freya Stark or read any of her writings?


10 thoughts on “Book Review: Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark by Jane Fletcher Geniesse

  1. I read The Passionate Nomad 10-15 years ago and LOVED it – perhaps because I was at the time just getting up the nerve to travel by myself. I freely admit, and must clarify, that “by myself” for me meant that I did not know any of the other members of a group of 6-8; close, but by no means the same. Ms Stark is in some ways a “hero” to me, but in others ways I am just not one to make demands of anyone, as she does, nor quite as brave. I do absolutely LOVE the quote you included. Fabulous review reminding me how much I loved this book and that I still have several books authored by Freya to read as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! Freya is such an inspiration! I have great admiration for you and your travels – it’s so brave! I really want to read some of her letters & books. I wonder if she’s as fun when she herself is writing!

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  2. The minute you wrote “she drank their water” I thought UH OH. Also, I’m not sure when all the vaccines we get today were first offered, but, you know, UH OH. Maybe she lived to 100 because she caught everything–up to and almost including death–and survived!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her life was astounding! I had to write everything down that she contracted & survived because it was extraordinary. The thing about Freya’s life is that if it were a fiction book, I’d be saying it was completely unbelievable. But this is nonfiction. In my book club we kept remarking how many of the things she did were just sentences (or brief mentions) in her book – her life was comprised of so many different accomplishments and adventures. Many other people’s books would just be about that one sentence/outing/escapade. But Freya’s story was full of so many different adventures (good and bad). She really was one fascinating lady!

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      1. In my yard as a creative writing student, I realized how easy it is to tell someone their fiction is good immediately after they reveal it’s based on fact. Then I learned they should keep their mouths shut, because life is stranger than fiction, and we evaluate each differently.

        Liked by 1 person

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