Monday, January 27, 2014

The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O'Brian

Source of book: I own this.

This is book 14 in O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, so I won’t duplicate what I have already written about the past couple of installments. Previous reviews are linked here:

This book continues the tale begun in the last book. Jack and Stephen and their crew have been shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific, leaving them with a dwindling food supply and only a slim chance of escape.

O’Brian manages to get them off the island, and into a new ship, this one a loaner until they can reuninte with The Surprise, the privateer owned by Stephen, and Jack’s favorite ship.

This ship, a recently restored vessel that had been sunk in shallow water, is named The Nutmeg of Consolation after a phrase used in the previous book by the ruler of the kingdom central to that book. In my opinion, this is the best book title in the entire series.

Like previous installments, this book is based on the actual annals of the British Navy. Obviously some things have been changed, as one captain couldn’t possibly have all these adventures, and they would take far more total time than they did in the books. Still, there is a high degree of realism. The complicated nature of the plots come from their basis in fact.

The plot leads from the island to yet another ingenious plan by Captain Aubrey to engage a superior French vessel, to an extended episode in Australia back when it was a penal colony. As with many of the other books, this one forms merely a part of an extended story spanning several books, and thus should not be attempted on its own. In fact, it would be folly to start the series anywhere except at the beginning. The only exception might be that one could, in a pinch, skip the first book. But even then, the background from that book, which stands alone as few of the books do, can be helpful in understanding the rest. Best to read from the beginning, understanding that one is really starting a 20 volume tale.

As in all of the books, the dialogue and the characters are the best part. (See my previous reviews for more on this.)

A few things stood out about this particular book. First, O’Brian is brutal in his description of the treatment of the prisoners in the Australian penal colonies. I was strongly reminded of the treatment of slaves in the United States. Brutality is indeed a human trait. A horrid human trait, but one that is disturbingly universal. We seem to have this built in desire to inflict immense pain on our fellow man.

Another heartrending passage occurred when the ship stops by an island to take in water. Nearly the entire population is dead, however, from smallpox. It is easy to forget, now that vaccinations have eliminated that horrific disease, how it destroyed great swaths of people, particularly those not previously exposed. In this case, two young girls are all that remain of the entire island. And this wasn’t particularly unusual. One could write a whole book on the way that smallpox destroyed non-European races during this time in history.

There was one final thing that really struck me. Stephen Maturin is the most thoughtful person in the entire series, probably because he is a spy, but also because he is a bastard, an Irish Catholic though in the British navy and secret service, and a rather unattractive man. He marries Diana, who is the most interesting and flawed female in the books, but has a troubled relationship with her. At one point in this book, he believes he has lost the bulk of his fortune through a bank failure. He isn’t that concerned about the personal hardship, because he really doesn’t care about wealth. He does, however, worry about the effect this might have on his marriage. Diana has resources of her own, and they won’t starve in any case. But Stephen worries about the shift in “moral advantage” within the marriage.

As Stephen thinks it, “moral advantage” is the enemy of marriage. In a good marriage, the balance is equal. Neither party feels superior to the other. As part of Stephen’s thoughts, he recalls the marriage of some relatives of his, who start out happy, but end up in a competition of who can sacrifice more for the other - and make the other feel that debt. (In this case, for example, the wife spends the value of the presents her husband gives her for prayers and masses for his soul.) I’m afraid the divorce attorney in me recognized too many clients in this one. Particularly the women who can’t resist reminding their (now ex) husbands what a sacrifice it was to be a housewife. Or how much they have given up for God. Moral advantage is indeed the enemy of marriage - and of love.

As always, I highly recommend Patrick O’Brian as perhaps the best modern historical fiction. Sadly, he passed in 2000, so there will be no more of these outstanding books. At least the ones he wrote can keep one busy for a while. These books are well written, well researched, and contain outstanding dialogue and memorable characters.

1 comment:

  1. In past years I had read half a dozen of the early books in this series, and when COVID struck I took it up again, and just finished Nutmeg. I intend now to push on to the end. The Truelove, or Clarissa Oakes, is waiting for pickup at my library.