Patrick O’Brian, “Desolation Island”

Two skuas and a giant petrel devouring a fur seal carcass: a scene readily visible, one imagines, on Desolation Islalnd.

Desolation Island is the fifth book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and notable for a couple of reasons. First, it shows clear signs of O’Brian plotting on a larger scale than before: not only does he understand that he’s now embarked on a series, he leaves the action unfinished, in a way — on the last page Jack and Stephen are on a tiny speck of land in the South Atlantic. Something major  has to happen before any of the plot points in motion (Stephen’s intelligence career, his love for Diana Villiers, Jack’s financial missteps, let alone any naval adventures) can move forward.

This is also the first book in which Jack takes his ship far south, into the “roaring forties,” which are inherently picturesque and dramatic. The fact that the “horrible old Leopard” is stalked around the (smallish southern end) of the globe by the massive Dutch Waakzaamheid only adds to the drama. These chase scenes are incredibly vivid.

Finally, we see Jack’s wife Sophie, for the first time, manipulating Jack. Captain Aubrey is hypercompetent on the waves but ashore, a natural victim of schemers. He is fleeced at cards, buys unsound horses, and falls victim to a speculator who claims to be able to mine silver on his land. To get him to go back to sea, Sophie shows an entirely new wifely cunning, pleading that Stephen needs to be taken to sea to ease his broken heart:

 ‘Once he had seen that you had changed your mind about the ship, he would never mention his own concerns. But if you had heard him speak of wombats — oh, just in passing, and not with any sense of ill-usage — it would have brought tears to your eyes. Oh, Jack, he is so very low.'”

And the next chapter begins, “The north-westerly gale had built up a wicked sea in the Bay of Biscay…” Sometimes I think the thing I love most about these books is their pacing.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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4 Responses to Patrick O’Brian, “Desolation Island”

  1. Heather says:

    Your posts are making me more tempted to read this series than I have been in the past. I think I read about O’Brian first over on Shelf Love, and then my boyfriend read the whole series from October 2010 to February 2011 — and he really liked it, but I wasn’t sure I would. But the snippets you’ve been sharing, and your thoughts on what’s appealing about the series, makes me think I would indeed like it!

  2. carolwallace says:

    Heather, they’re at least worth a try. The good thing is, you know right away if they will work for you or not, because the series is pretty consistent. The thing is, they look like boy books but they really are not. Let me know how you get on!

  3. Karla says:

    I happened upon this blog, and was inspired to pick up the Aubrey-Maturin series again (I have read them *only* once). Absolutely glorious books, for the reasons you point out – the meticulous, vivid descriptions of characters; the lovely, warm friendship between Jack and Stephen; the pacing, as you say here. Penelope Fitzgerald has a similar touch (at least that’s how I remember it) – the jump cut from interior decision to dramatic change of scene, which is satisfying because it’s startling yet at the same time makes perfect emotional sense. Also what I love about O’Brian: ravishing descriptions of seascapes and uncanny natural phenomena. Thanks for these reflections! Read on, O blogger, read on!

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, Karla, thank you for making yourself known! As it happens I have “Moon Tiger” on my TBR pile and haven’t yet read it, very exciting — but I’m still enmeshed with Stephen and Jack. I like the way you spell out the character of the pacing: jump cuts. Remember the one where Stephen falls overboard and they are suddenly taken captive by cannibals? Fabulous. And, yes, the natural history business is as you say, “ravishing.” More to come at this end… “Fortune of War” finished last night. (Captives in Boston. You remember.)

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