I’ve had this book on my shelves for a few years now. It seems I picked it up on one of my crazy trips to second-hand bookshops. I don’t remember why I bought it, but if I was to guess it was probably because I liked Lord of the Flies a lot when I read it in secondary school and was curious to read some more of Golding’s books.
Reading during lockdown has been patchy, with ups and downs, some safe books to bring me back on track, but then also some more adventurous choices. And this was one of those.
The book is a journal of a six months trip from England to Australia written by Edmund Talbott in the early years of the nineteenth century. Talbott travels to assume a post secured for him by his godfather, who also presented him with the journal and asked for Talbott to write about the travel. Diligently Talbott starts with a detailed description of the ship and his seasickness experiences. Then moves on to describing the passengers. This part of the book is really funny, Talbott is certainly a snob, but his observations are sharp and witty. They also give us a picture of the class society, with all its norms transported to the closed environment of the ship.
One of the passengers is Reverend Colley. Talbott initially dislikes the man, but he does step in when a conflict arises between him and the captain. In his journal, Talbott gives the man some attention but focuses more on his affair with one of the passengers. Until one day Colley gets incredibly drunk in the part of ship reserved for lower classes. After that event, he stops leaving his cabin and dies not long after. As if he wished himself to death.
Talbott, asked to intervene and talk to the man to give him some hope, after failing in that endeavor finds his letters to his wife. The story that unfolds is one of quiet tragedy. Talbot moved by it pushes the captain of the ship to investigate Colley’s death. The investigation uncovers that Colley has been sexually assaulted, but it comes to grinding halt when one of the sailors suggests that an officer may have been involved. Riddled with guilt about not being able to save the man or uncover the truth Talbott decides to write a letter to Colley’s family and subsequently seals the journal.
It was a weird book, or maybe not. It actually felt very nineteenth century, which certainly was the goal. I enjoyed Golding’s mastery of language, being able to start off with a cheerful, snobby account and then gradually build it out into a violent and oppressive atmosphere. Also, it has been the first book in a few years that sent me checking words in a dictionary (such as paregoric, atrabilious and inveterate).
It was also an in-depth study of a closed community, and there have been many of those, what makes this one special is our narrator. His perspective is inherently flawed by his class and privilege. His observations scathing and sharp, but also often missing things. Because we know only his account also our knowledge is incomplete, so we find out about some events that took place only once he reads Colley’s letters. The cast of characters present on the ship is also very entertaining.
All in all a good book, not sure if it would make the top 10 of my lockdown reading, but it certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone.