Desolation Island

I was a little embarrassed, after likening lengthy literary masterpieces to ocean voyages, and declaring that I would soon embark upon a reading of Gibbon, to instead take up a series literally about ocean voyages, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. But having come through as grim a season as I have seen in this life, with the deaths of my mother and my poor cat Cleo, and this against the background of a grueling legislative session at the capitol, where my wife works, I hoped that you would indulge me.

The excellence of these novels lies in the way that they are written. O'Brian has immersed himself in the age of Napoleon, and in the spoken English of that time, and he tells his tales as a time-traveler to our day might tell them, effecting a fine period-rush.

Desolation Island, the fifth in the series, begins a new and greater movement. The prior four all have neat endings. Now his cast of characters is developed, and you sense that O'Brian is getting to the heart of his story.


A running battle with a Dutch man-of-war takes Captain Jack Aubrey's H.M.S. Leopard into the roaring forties, where, at length, a lucky shot shatters the Dutchman's foremast and he goes down in the heavy seas. Having pumped out their fresh water to stay ahead of the enemy, they approach an iceberg to refill, and gash their hull upon it. Near to sinking, Aubrey lets his first lieutenant depart with those who would abandon ship in the ship's boats to avoid a mutiny. Here I had to put the book down last night, unable to endure any more misery.

The Leopard limps along rudderless in the mid-forties, her diminished crew exhausted with pumping, trying to stem the leak with canvas. Even with an improvised steering oar, they fail to make landfall at an island when the oar breaks. With a new steering oar, battered by a gathering storm, Aubrey brings the Leopard into the lee of Desolation Island, where he finds safe harbor.

I confess that I heaved sobs of relief. I don't think I've been so moved since the relief of Minas Tirith by the horsemen of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Lord of the Rings.

Aided by a wary American whaler, (on the eve of the War of 1812), the Leopard manages to ship a new rudder, and there the novel ends abruptly, to continue in The Fortunes of War.

A blurb credits O'Brian with a "Conradian power of description", and I have to agree. It doesn't get any better.

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