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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

John Boyne's Mutiny on the Bounty

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, by John Boyne. (Random House/Doubleday, trade paper, NZ$36.99).

The mutiny led by Fletcher Christian, who seized the breadfruit-laden Bounty after leaving Tahiti in April 1789, and set the captain, William Bligh, adrift in a boat, ranks up there with the Titanic as one of the iconic stories of the sea. The combination of sadism, violent confrontation, a sexy Polynesian paradise, and an epic small boat voyage has an enduringly irresistible appeal.
Ever since March 1790, when Bligh arrived in London to report what he called a "close-planned act of villainy", people haven't been able to stop memorialising the event. Poets, including Lord Byron, have penned poems; artworks have been painted; scholarly articles written; and conferences held. Two replica ships have been built, and five films made, one―the 1935 Oscar-winner―managing to convince the world that Bligh was a brute who looked just like Charles Laughton, and Christian, portrayed by Clark Gable, was a romantic hero. Marlon Brando, who played an equally dashing Christian in a 1962 version, was so seduced by the story he married his Boraboran co-star, and bought his own Polynesian island. The mutiny now has several websites.
Nonfiction accounts abound, starting with Bligh's own book, A narrative of the mutiny … (1790). The latest is Caroline Alexander's fine study, The Bounty (2003), which treats Bligh much more charitably than most of the earlier versions, and greatly influenced the book under review. Novelists―starting with Nordhoff and Hall in 1932―have given the sensational story fictionalised treatment, too, and of these John Boyne is the most recent.
For his novel, Boyne has taken a real-life person, John Smith, Captain Bligh's steward, and replaced him with a fourteen-year-old pickpocket. This is John Jacob Turnstile, a lively character with a racy turn of phrase, strengthened rather than corrupted by his dark past as a child prostitute in Portsmouth. Given the choice of a year in jail or a trip to Tahiti, Turnstile chooses the Bounty, but finds adjusting to sea-life quite a challenge.
For the first two days he is most horribly seasick, an ordeal eased only by the lucky fact that he has a kindly captain who tucks his blankets and wipes his fevered brow. When he wakes to his surroundings, it is to find that most of his companions are distinctly unpleasant, being "scuts" and "weasels" who force him to endure a particularly brutal crossing-the-line ceremony. Then, when young "Turnip" arrives in Tahiti, it is to fall in love with a dusky maiden, who betrays him for another.
Surprisingly, the author does not give this as the reason why Turnstile chose loyalty to his captain on the fateful day of the mutiny, rather than take the chance to return to the seductive island. Instead, like much of what has gone before, his decision is not quite credible. It is not until now, at the moment that Turnstile joins Bligh and the other loyal crewmen in the boat, at the start of a 48-day ordeal―"Eighteen men in twenty feet of wood and glue and nails, fighting for their very lives"―that the story becomes convincing. Then it is compellingly so. Of all the accounts of epic small boat voyages I have ever read, Boyne's would be one of the most gripping.
This, along with the memorable protagonist, makes the book a recommended choice. And while it is hard to believe that any naval commander would stoop to mop his servant's brow, it is a refreshing change that Bligh should be the hero, for once, and Fletcher Christian the villain.
Review by Joan Druett, originally published in the Dominion Post of Wellington, New Zealand, 26 July 2008.

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