Rarely a year goes by without one author or another alighting on an agreed classic to provide an update or a return or reprise or a reboot. Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett did the dirty on Gone with the Wind. Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter reprised Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Jean Rhys did the business on Jane Eyre, Emma Tennant revisited both Pride & Prejudice and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Now former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has revived another classic, Treasure Island, to enormously entertaining effect.
Opening ‘early in the month of July in the year 1802’, Jim Hawkins rises early to perform the tasks set by his father, the Jim Hawkins we know from Treasure Island. The paterfamilias took his share of the treasure, lived the life of Riley for a while and then settled down to run an inn named after the Hispaniola, the ship that originally took him and Long John Silver and Squire Trelawney and all the rest to Treasure Island. Unfortunately the woman he took as a wife died in childbirth and left behind a melancholy shadow to raise the boy who narrates the tale we read.
It takes a surprise visit from a young dark-skinned woman called Natty, who it turns out is the daughter of Long John Silver, to kick start the adventure. She takes young Jim to meet her father – also a shadow of himself:
‘To call this body emaciated does not do justice to the ravages it had suffered – especially since he had detached his wooden leg (from close by his hip) and laid it on the floor beside him. It would be better to say that his form seemed to be disintegrating, even as I looked at it: the collapsed folds of his trousers, the speckled brown stalk of his single leg, where it protruded beside its absent partner; the chest sunk beneath the grimy flounces of his shirt: all these led me to marvel that the spirit governing them was still active, and to suppose it could not endure for much longer.’
Blind, ‘a rag covered in rags’, Silver conjures up the ghost of the silver left behind on Treasure Island:
‘Your father and I only took what we could carry… But there’s more. All the beautiful silver. Silver lying on the ground and the map will tell you where!’
Having stolen the map from his father (an act that presents young Jim Hawkins as a moral creature keen to weigh his acts on this Earth with an eye on the hereafter), he and Natty set off on a ship procured by her father, with a handpicked crew that includes a descendant of Israel Hands, a man who nearly did away with his father. There is a terrific scene of on-board mayhem that concludes with a curse that resonates through the book all the way to the last page.
Upon arrival at the eponymous island, the second crucial plot thread to be lifted from Treasure Island surfaces in the form of the three pirates left as maroons at the conclusion of the original novel. We learn that a slaver’s ship came to misfortune on the rocks and the three pirates – Smirke, Stone and Jinks (who are best approached as a trio in the vein of Top Gear presenters May, Clarkson and Hammond) have created an evil fortress in the stockade that belabours under the shadow of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Of course the pirates have the silver the crew of Natty and Hawkin’s ship desire; but the ethical question of whether slavery is right wrong more quickly comes to bear and the crew resolve to act.
Motion manages to fashion a novel that works both as a boy’s own adventure and a subtle literary comedy (a Mr Stevenson is a member of the crew and spends a great deal of the book in the crow’s nest, with an eye on what we have yet to see). Silver is at once a high adventure, a love story and a horror story (the horror mainly arising from the character of Stone who had his throat cut in a prior failed uprising and sports a bright white scar about his throat and a cool detached stare that chills the reader to the bone). The writing is both thoughtful and evocative, the characterisation is sensitive and nuanced and the plot manages to be both subtle and compelling.
All told this might well be the best tale of the seven seas since Barry Unsworth’s rip roaring Booker winner, Sacred Hunger.
Any Cop?: A sterling silver entertainment and a highly recommended read to boot, me hearties.