Post-Treasure Island novel from ex-British Poet Laureate
The New World by Andrew Motion, Jonathan Cape, hdbk, 358 pages, €12.99
The business of writing contemporary sequels to classic novels has taken off in recent years with mixed results. Some, like Geraldine Brooks' March, based on Little Women, offer an intriguing background to a familiar story. Others, like Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are written mostly for fun. And then there's the stream of young/old James Bond and Sherlock Holmes novels that regularly land in bookshops just in time for Christmas or Father's Day. It's not that writers' imaginations have dried up entirely, but sometimes it feels like they could do with a little watering.
Andrew Motion, Britain's former Poet Laureate, thrust himself into this genre in 2012 with Silver, a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, which Motion has described as a cornerstone of his own reading and his imagination. He was largely successful in that endeavour, following the adventures of Jim Hawkins, the son of the original Jim, and Natty, the daughter of Long John Silver, as they returned to the titular atoll in search of their lost fortune.
It's helpful to be familiar with the earlier volume as the action of The New World picks up in the aftermath of a shipwreck when Jim and Natty are washed to shore, along with the dead and mutilated bodies of their former companions, and are immediately confronted by cannibals, eager to throw them on the barbecue. Capture and imprisonment follow, and the page-turning appeal of a good old-fashioned adventure story makes for a hugely entertaining read.
Much of the novel sees our young heroes falling in and out of trouble, risking and evading death, but it is the villainous presence of Black Cloud, a vicious and rather scary savage who continues to hunt them after their escape, that adds the most drama to the story and the reader both dreads and looks forward to his return in equal measure.
Jim and Natty make an appealing pair. She is no timid creature needing a man to save her, staying resolute in the face of danger. As might be expected from a poet, there are vivid and powerful descriptions of the natural world. The ritualised killing of an alligator is rendered with both savagery and tenderness while Natty's killing of a bear, and the fortitude and dignity with which the creature falls - 'as if death did not matter, because life did not matter' - is unexpectedly moving.
However, for all its charm, it's difficult to know for whom a novel like this is intended. The narrative has the feel of the young adult genre, although its protagonists are not teenagers. And adults who like a little more contemporary grit in their fiction might be baffled by the plot and the 19th-Century writing style. Perhaps Motion is simply challenging himself to recreate a lost genre and, in doing so, to revive it. Whatever the intent, it's written with such gusto and passion that it's impossible not to enjoy it. Me, I'm off to work on my new novel, Ulysses II: This Time It's Roscommon.
John Boyne's latest novel is A History of Loneliness
Both available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091709350