Monday, September 9, 2013
Patrick O'Brian's DESOLATION ISLAND
I'd been in another sneaky hate spiral, rage-quitting everything I picked up at the slightest provocation, even books to which I'd been looking forward. I was pretty sure this had nothing to do with their quality, or at least not very much, and everything to do with me. After all, I had just had to put my faithful companion of over 11 years, the Collie of Follie, to sleep and there is still a giant border collie-shaped hole in my home and my life and when I'm home and reading I've always had one hand on her fur.
But so cue Desolation Island, which is, as I've said already, one of my favorites in the Aubrey Maturin mega-series. This novel brings us one of Jack's most memorable ships (the horrible old Leopard), one of the crew's most interesting chases (fleeing the Dutch ship Waakzaamheid), one of the more interesting missions (to Australia, to help deal with the infamous Rum Rebellion against Governor William "Bounty" Bligh and introducing thereby the theme of mutiny, which delicately looms through the novel's various crises without ever really becoming overt), and one of Stephen's most interesting opponent/victims, Louisa Wogan, she of the slight resemblance to Stephen's faithless love interest, Diana, and of the "absurd gurgling laugh" and of the career as a sort of low-rent Aphra Behn.
It is around Wogan that most of the plot revolves; an American spy who got caught, she is sentenced to be transported to Australia, but the powers that be suspect she still has more valuable information to yield up, so instead of chucking her into an ordinary transportation hulk, she is to go on a Royal Navy ship -- the Leopard, under Jack Aubrey's command -- with enough additional prisoners to give her cover. En route, our man Dr. Stephen Maturin, naval surgeon and intelligence agent, is to be set to trick or otherwise extract this information from her. Sounds simple enough, and should be a piece of cake for our man Maturin, except for one giant fly in the ointment: gaol fever, aka typhus, brought on board by some of Wogan's camouflage-prisoners, quickly fatal to all of the people charged with the prisoners' care, including their doctor, and taking its toll on the Leopard's crew as well!
Nor is this their biggest problem as they make their ill-starred way to Australia. Undermanned and underprepared, they run afoul of the aforementioned Waakzaamheid, which I mention again just because it's fun to type "Waakzaamheid" and other hazards, leading them to the titular island and more peril! But it's all just a vehicle for Jack and Stephen to prove their ingenuity, their fitness to survive and command in their separate spheres, their ability to make do with whatever meager resources are at hand, their sheer awesomeness as characters and Men of the Early Nineteenth Century. Hooray!