Patrick O’Brian: Desolation Island

Leander Desolation Island (the fifth in the series) seems in many ways like the archetypical Aubrey-Maturin novel, and maybe that is why apparently the bulk of the movie Master and Commander (which I have never watched, so I’m going by hearsay here) was based on it. It has everything admirers of the series (and honestly – who, once they have navigated past the rocky cliffs of the first volume, would not admire this series?) love about it, and all of it even more perfectly balanced out against each other than it was in HMS Surprise.

True, there is not as much in the way of naval battles as there was in some other volumes, but there is an edge-of-your-seat naval chase sequence that is likely to leave the reader breathless, there is a lot of quality time spend with familiar characters, there are some interesting new ones introduced and there are what I consider O’Brian’s most beautiful descriptions of the sea yet.

The sea is a very rewarding subject for the visual arts, presumably (speaking as someone, mind you, who has not the first clue about the visual arts) because it is on the very borderline between represenation and abstract – the sea is a concrete object which can be rendered naturalistically, but on the other hand it consist of nothing but waves, weather and light, thus forming an almost abstract space. One can (I think) see how that would appeal to a painter, but it is precisely because of those things that make it fascinating to a painter that describing the ocean is something very hard to do for a writer. O’Brian has been very impressive with this from Master & Commander onwards, but I think in Desolation Island he really outdoes himself – whether he describes a quiet day with a calm ocean or a storm in full blast, his tableaux are not just intense and vivid, but there is a certain transparent luminosity, strata of description stacked upon each other like Turner layers colours. The comparison is probably as trite as it is wrong (and Leander would likely kill me for it, if she was not such a fundamentally nice person), but on reading O’Brian’s rendering of the sea I could not but help but be reminded of some of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings, it is the same combination of bold, expressive strokes that yet somehow give the impression of fine, closely observed detail.

Many readers seem to have noticed a certain change in the series starting with this volume – mainly, it is ascribed to O’Brian becoming comfortable with the series format, rather than just a sequence of individual novels who just happen to share the same main characters. While I would not go so far as to say that this is wrong, I think that the shift is happening here is slightly different, and actually away from a serial structure. Patrick O’Brian never seemed much concerned about giving a sense of closure to his Aubrey-Maturin novels; with the exception of HMS Surprise all previous novels just stop at some more or less random point, only for the next installment to take up the thread after several months have passed. None of the earlier novels, however, gets quite as cut off in medias res as Desolation Island – while it’s not quite a cliffhanger, nothing at all appears to get resolved, there are countless threads left hanging, and the novel just… stops. Like we were not at the end of a novel, but rather at the end of a chapter, and I think that is exactly where we are – from Desolation Island onwards, this stops being a simple series and turns into one long novel, a (not counting the unfinished 21st volume) 20-volume spanning roman fleuve (or should that be roman mer?). I might be wrong, and this might only turn out to be something of a story arc inside the larger series, but I’ll find out – in any case, this is my favourite Aubrey-Maturin novel so far, and I’m quite excited to find out where else O’Brian will take his heroes.



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