Book Reviews, New Zealand - Monday, July 28, 2014 20:45 - 0 Comments
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL MORRISSEY
In this issue:
James Cook’s New World by Graeme Lay
The Bassett Road Machine Gun Murders by Scott Bainbridge
Purgatory by Rosetta Allen
Florid Eyes by Nicky English
JAMES COOK’S NEW WORLD by Graeme Lay, Fourth Estate, $37.00
James Cook’s New World is the second of a trilogy about the three great voyages of Captain Cook, often regarded as the greatest nautical explorer in history. In this second voyage, Cook traversed some 70,000 miles or nearly three times the circumference of the globe – the longest voyage yet made by any expedition. Lay’s first Cook novel – The Secret Life of James Cook – was a thundering good read, its triumph being the reconstruction by Lay of the explorer’s private journal to his wife plus convincingly researched nautical and geographic detail. The sequel has much the same strengths and is even, arguably, the better of the two, though like the first, occasionally marred by the use of somewhat banal dialogue when characters meet each other. In counterbalance, Lay shows off his dialogue skills in more extended deliveries of character-revealing talk.
The novel follows the traditional novelist’s scheme of giving a full account of all the minor drama leading up to the major drama of the voyage itself which begins around page 90. Some might think this leads to a disproportionate leanness of space for the account of the circumnavigation but the pleasing density of Lay’s prose makes the remaining 228 pages more than rich enough. All the same, a Bryce Courtenay or a James Clavell (or, indeed, Eleanor Catton) would have given the reader more than double that.
The main items in the pre-voyage pages include the vicarious lechery of the influential Lord Sandwich, the meeting with King George 111, but above all, the greedy self-centred demands of the sinfully rich Joseph Banks in wanting an extra deck to accommodate numerous servants. Here, as in many important matters, let us be thankful Cook got his rational way – the extra deck, which would have made the vessel dangerously top heavy, was removed, prompting Banks to lose his temper and pull out.
Banks was replaced by Johann Forster, an irritable (and irritating) Lutheran pastor, a bully and a moral fusspot who turns out to be, if anything, a bigger pain than Banks would have been. Like several of the crew, he decides to bring a monkey on board as a pet and then remonstrates with Cook when the cold of the southern ocean results in its freezing to death. His charming son George is much more amiable. Another important presence on the good ship Resolution was William Hodges, the resolute and capable painter who records various sights including a huge waterspout. Then there is Hitihiti, the Tahiti-based translator who proves invaluable on Cook’s many landfalls.
Although Banks, Dalyrymple and King George 111 were all convinced – or at least highly hopeful – of Cook finding the Great Southern Continent, the great explorer was much more cautious and of course his first voyage had not produced the desired positive result. As it turns out, there was no such entity – only the great ice mass beyond the Antarctic circle which did in fact secretly house the yearned for land mass but at a lower degree of latitude than envisaged. So, by a pleasing paradox, Cook both disproved the conventional location of the Great Southern Continent but unwittingly found it. Cook’s largest actual discovery was New Caledonia, an island of over 7000 sq miles.
The journey itself is thrilling both in detail and incident as Cook and crew moor at island after island in the Pacific. The high point of nautical adrenalin is reached when the Resolution nearly drifts onto a reef bringing back bad memories of the time they did so on the first voyage. Cook rapidly shouts orders and the crew responds. Throughout the book, Lay convinces us – and I have no doubt of it – that Cook was a great leader of men, scrupulously fair, and the first circumnavigation to bring back a crew without a single loss of life to scurvy. Cook was also loyal to his wife Elizabeth, patiently waiting back in England. The crew, alas, were not so chaste but humanly who can blame them? Especially when Polynesian women made it clear they were readily available albeit for the minor payment of a nail.
The re-creation of Cook’s personal journal is a major accomplishment on Lay’s part and WOULD YOU LIKE TO READ MORE OF THIS STORY?
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