The Wine-Dark Sea takes up very much where The Truelove left off, in location and mood. Both books are relatively short and I wonder if Patrick O’Brian originally intended them as one volume. However, 500 pages of the frustration and glumness that Jack and Stephen endure in these novels would make for depressing reading, so it’s just as well they were split up. The most memorable sections of The Wine-Dark Sea are the passages when Stephen is ashore in Peru and then in Chile, crossing the Andes with a group of Indians, fuelled by roasted guinea pig and coca leaves. This long diversion does nothing to move the plot along — a goal that O’Brian has long since demonstrated he cares nothing for — but it’s quite remarkable, and our fondness for Stephen makes it possible to participate in his wonder. (I did wonder a bit about Stephen and his arduous climb and The Pilgrim’s Progress, given my earlier suspicions about O’Brian’s literary borrowings, but it’s very hard to find much in common between Stephen Maturin and that book’s protagonist, Christian.)
Yet just at the end, as the Surprise and her crew have been battered almost beyond redemption, redemption heaves into sight as a sixty-four gun vessel captained by Jack’s old friend Heneage Dundas. And just like that, the mood shifts.
Two quotations that more or less bracket the tone of the book: Early on, the Surprise and many of her people are injured in a volcanic eruption. Stephen and Jack part after surveying some of the damage on the deck and in the sea.
‘A late breakfast? I hope so indeed,’ said Stephen, making his way down by single steps and moving, as Jack noticed for the first time, like an old man.”
At the end of the book, after being rescued by his friend Dundas and recounting his grim adventures, Jack says,
‘No. Harking back to this voyage, I think it was a failure upon the whole, and a costly failure; but,’ he said laughing with joy at the thought, ‘I am so happy to be homeward-bound, and I am so happy, so very happy to be alive.'”