Writing about the 20-book Aubrey/Maturin series, I’ve tried not to fall into the “This-is-the-one-where…” mode. But The Far Side of the World contains one of my all-time favorite plot points and I can’t help referring to it. SPOILER ALERT This is the one where, in the South Pacific, Stephen falls overboard, Jack dives in to save him, the two float away from the ship all night and are finally taken up by a boatload of female cannibals. The thing is, it doesn’t feel histrionic or the least bit implausible and even though I knew it was coming, I was surprised, yet again, because of Patrick O’Brian’s inimitable way of not signaling plot developments. He doesn’t slow down, doesn’t heighten your awareness of the lovely warm star-lit sea, the open stern windows, Stephen puttering around off-balance, doesn’t do any kind of writerly drumroll. Just a splash.
Actually, there’s lots of plot in The Far Side of the World. Jack and the Surprise take off after an American privateer that’s harassing the British whale trade. They round the Horn, visit the Galapagos, learn a great deal about whaling. Rarely in this series do things go as planned, have you noticed? The weather or topography intervenes (both in this case, wrecking ships and driving others off course). Or people interfere with others’ plans, especially in the arcane world of international intelligence. Some novelists have trouble keeping the dramatic tension going but O’Brian is well supplied with potential sources of conflict.
As always, I deeply appreciated the continual growth of the characters. Jack is surpassing Stephen in musical skill:
Few things gave them more joy; and although they were as unlike in nationality, education, religion, appearance and habit of mind as two men could well be, they were wholly at one when it came to improvising, working out variations on a theme, handing them to and fro, conversing with violin and ‘cello; though this was a language in which Jack was somewhat more articulate than his friend, wittier, more original and indeed more learned.”
Who, Jack? Wittier? But it’s reasonable because of the way this series stretches out over time. Jack and Stephen mature, change, and influence each other. Within a few pages we see them handing optimism unconsciously to and fro, first Jack and then Stephen trusting to fate (or the Surprise) to get them out of a tight spot. It’s a truism that long-standing friendship is one of the most difficult subjects for fiction, but if O’Brian has one supreme merit of many, it’s his ability to portray this kind of enduring mutable relationship between men.
Furthermore: who else in the world would invent a scene in which a seagoing pastrycook creates a floating island (dessert) in the form of the Galapagos, with longitude and latitude “made out of spun sugar; so is the equator, but double thick and dyed with port.” A floating island… served afloat! Oh ha ha ha, as Jack says.