Andrew Motion, formerly the Poet Laureate, says he has loved Stevenson’s Treasure Island all his life. He calls it “a cornerstone of my reading, and of my imagination”.
Silver: Return to Treasure Island
by Andrew Motion
Jonathan Cape, 404pp, £12.99
So he has written a sequel, and done so, as far as possible, in Stevenson’s manner. His publishers claim that he has captured the voice and tone of the original perfectly. This is a bold assertion, not perhaps fully justified, but he has certainly come close to doing so. One thing, however, his sequel lacks: Stevenson’s economy. Stevenson’s fiction is always lean; Motion tends to prolong a scene unnecessarily, and so his narrative does not move as fast as Stevenson’s. The Return to Treasure Island is twice as long as the tale to which it is the sequel, and almost every scene would have benefited from being cut.
That said, this is a very enjoyable novel, exciting and vividly imagined. One may have doubts about such sequels, but Motion has had the good sense – and good taste – to give himself an almost completely new set of characters, and although Stevenson himself wrote in the dedication of Catriona that “it is the fate of sequels to disappoint those who have waited for them”, Motion is more likely to please readers who know and love Treasure Island than to disappoint them..
His novel begins long after Stevenson’s finished. The youthful narrator is Jim Hawkins’s son, also Jim, a boy about the same age as his father was when he set out on his adventure. The original Jim, having run through most of his share of Captain Flint’s treasure, now keeps an inn or public-house on the Thames. Sadly for those of us who remember him in his prime, he has become a bit of a bore, recounting his adventures night after night, before retiring to bed drunk. This may be sad, but it is all too credible. The hero of one generation can become a garrulous bore – like Second World War pilots keeping pubs in English villages.
One day a girl appears in a rowing-boat and accosts young Jim. This is Natty, and she has sought him out because she is Long John Silver’s daughter and her father has charged her with a mission. Silver himself is now an old man, near the point of death.. Like Jim Hawkins he keeps a pub – a somewhat sinister one – where he lives with Natty and her mother, a Bible-reading-and-quoting black woman. Silver remains obsessed with that part of Flint’s treasure which was not found and has commissioned and fitted out a ship to go in search of it. What he needs from Jim is the famous map which his father keeps, and when Natty has brought the boy to meet her father, he agrees to steal it. Young Jim and Natty will both sail on Silver’s ship, the somewhat androgynous Natty disguised as a boy and calling herself Nat. This inevitably leads to complications of feeling. Silver cannot travel himself, but his spirit broods over the voyage. Jim is alarmed to discover that one of the crew, whom he had first seen lurking in Silver’s pub, is the nephew of Israel Hands whom his father killed. Is he bent on revenge?
So everything is set up nicely. The island itself, when they reach it after a difficult and at times perilous voyage, is no longer uninhabited. Readers of Treasure Island itself will recall that some of the rebellious crew of the “Hispaniola” – the mutineers – were left behind marooned on the island. They have not only survived – the maroons and their descendants have even in a manner flourished, and been fortunate enough to have been able to provide themselves with slaves. Treasure Island has become a place of danger, cruelty and horror.
Treasure Island itself was written for boys, and first published in a boys’ magazine, Young Folks. So there was no need for Stevenson to provide any love interest. Motion supplies this, and does so in a way that complicates and deepens the novel.
Actually, by having Natty pretending to be a boy, Motion allows the relationship between her and Jim to echo Stevenson’s Catriona, in which, for propriety’s sake, David Balfour pretends that Catriona is his sister when they travel to Holland in search of her scoundrelly father. The echo is the stronger because of Natty’s own ambivalent feeling towards her father, Silver.
In short Andrew Motion has written a vastly entertaining novel, with fine action scenes, which serves as an act of homage to Stevenson. He writes with much of Stevenson’s own lucid intelligence, power of invention and generosity of spirit.. Other have imitated Stevenson before now: Arthur Quiller-Couch, for instance, wrote the last chapters of the novel, St Ives, which was one of those Stevenson left unfinished, and did it well.
Motion’s undertaking was perhaps a still bolder one, and, despite any reservations one may have regarding the lack of economy in structure and writing, may be judged a success.
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