Adventures on the 'Far Side' of the World

Article excerpt

LOOKING for quick passage to another world and another time? Either of these books will serve well. Both are set in the early 19th century, in or around Australia, and both are engaging works of imagination that combine action, suspense, and vivid introspection. Beyond that, however, they're utterly different.

"The Nutmeg of Consolation" is the 14th in a series of seafaring novels by British author Patrick O'Brian, who blends deft storytelling with an encyclopedic grasp of maritime lore and natural history. O'Brian's central characters are Jack Aubrey, a gentle tyrant of a sea captain who worships the traditions of His Majesty's Navy but has a deep compassion for his men, and Steven Maturin, ship's doctor, naturalist, and intelligence agent.

Much of the appeal of this tale comes from the relationship between these longtime shipmates. Their skills, resourcefulness, and good fortune see the crew through shipwreck, piracy, a near disastrous engagement with a French man-of-war, and, finally, a dispiriting layover in Sydney Harbor, then the capital of a cruel British penal colony.

There's no shortage of adventure in this novel, but it's more than an adventure story. The long, hit-and-run fight between the Nutmeg of Consolation, as Captain Aubrey christens his new ship, and the more heavily gunned Frenchman is more a test of endurance and seamanship than firepower. The book's pace and interest spring largely from wry dialogue and the many dimensions of its characters.

Jack Aubrey habitually tries, and habitually fails, to come out with clever turns of phrase that might rival the wit of his more learned friend. Stephen broods about a fortune lost because of a bank failure back in London and finds refuge from his sometimes overheated thoughts by chewing on coca leaves - until the ship's rats deprive him of that escape.

O'Brian's writing is loaded with language of sea and sail, as in this appraisal of the Nutmeg: "She was neither brisk nor lively with the wind much abaft the beam, but on a bowline she was as fast and weatherly as a man could desire... ." Heavy-going for the landlubber, perhaps, but usually done with such adroitness that it only adds notes of authenticity, whether the technical meaning is fathomed or not. When you put this book down, a taste of salt air lingers, as does the acquaintance of two extraordinary men. …