Patrick O’Brian: HMS Surprise

The title is already an indication of it: after Patrick O’Brian went all Jane Austen on his readers in Post Captain, this third volume of his Aubrey-Maturin series returns to mostly naval matters. But even as it shifts focus back to the sea, it retains the human and social dimension that the previous novel introduced to the series, giving the two main characters James Aubrey and Stephen Maturin even more depth, and slowly turning them into what might very well be some of the most deeply realized characters in fiction this side of Ulysses (and, as a brief, totally-besides-the-point aside, nobody, but really nobody, not even Shakespeare does characters like James Joyce).

The series, then – to return to the subject of this review – continues to improve, and HMS Surprise is the best installment so far – it gets the balance between adventure and contemplation, between naval action and character description, between fighting and exploration just right, and even turns out to possess a well-wrought structure: While in the first two novels, O’Brian seemed satisfied to have his plot amble aimlessly wherever his whim took it, this time the novel is framed by two extended fighting sequences (both centered around Jack) at the beginning and the end (one on land, one on sea) while the middle part (mostly centered around Stephen) is given to exploration (something else O’Brian does exceptionally well and to which I will have to return in a later post), descriptions of life on sea and character development. Jack’s and Stephen’s affairs of the heart proceed in a nicely measured symmetry, constantly juxtaposing one with the other until, by the end of the novel, they find themselves at opposite ends of the happiness scale. After the rather amorphous preceding volumes it was really unexpected (I’m very tempted to say, it was a real surprise – if that wasn’t such a horrible, Aubrey-worthy pun) to find this one so perfectly poised, as if O’Brian just wanted to show that he was able to do it if he could be bothered.

But HMS Surprise is not just the structurally most refined but also the novel with by far the greatest emotional impact so far – not just because the narrative continues to follow the love affairs of our protagonists begun in Post Captain, but chiefly due to a certain episode Stephen encounters (about which I will not go into any detail to avoid spoilers) which ends in a devastating tragedy. The episode I am alluding to here is utterly heartbreaking, and it is here that the series first shows the emotional depths it is capable of plumbing. I suspect, however, that it will not have been the last time, now that Patrick O’Brian has shown here (and in some other events, also involving Stephen – who really has a very bad time in this novel) that he is not afraid of putting his protagonists through the wringer.

The novel ends on a note which a certain sense of closure to events, and with that and the careful symmetry in its structure, I couldn’t help but think that HMS Surprise might actually have been a good point to end the series as a trilogy. Thankfully, O’Brian didn’t but went on to add many, many more volumes which I’m quite excited about reading.


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