Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Far Side of the World (Aubrey/Maturin, #10)The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two years ago, I started reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series after years of prodding by my husband who insisted that the books weren't really war adventures - which I would hate - but were more about the relationships of the men on the ships. Finally succumbing to his persuasion, I found that hubby was right. Again.

In fact, I do like this series very much. I've been reading it now at a rate of about five books a year, more or less, and if I continue on that pace, I should have at least two more years of good reading ahead. So far, I have not found a stinker among the books and this tenth one is, I think, my favorite of all that I've read.

The bromance between Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin continues in The Far Side of the World. Aubrey is still captaining the Surprise which, much to his distress, had been designated to return to England to be decommissioned and possibly broken up for scrap. But he and the ship get a reprieve. He is commanded to take the ship to protect English whalers and to stop the American frigate, the Norfolk, from interfering with them.

The Surprise chases the Norfolk all across the Atlantic, along the coast of South America, and finally around Cape Horn and into the vast openness of the Pacific Ocean. They never come very close to catching the Americans and they have many adventures along the way.

The trip sees one of the most serious disagreements ever to occur between Aubrey and Maturin when Aubrey refuses to allow Maturin and his friend, the parson Martin, time to explore the Galapagos Islands. The captain is convinced that they are getting closer to Norfolk and he will not dim his chances by slowing down for science.

Maturin is angry, but his is not a nature that can hold a grudge for long.

Sometime later,  through a combination of circumstances, Maturin, who has never really mastered the art of seamanship in all his years as a ship's surgeon, manages to fall from the ship into the Pacific. Aubrey turns to speak to him and finds him gone. He realizes almost immediately what has happened and jumps in to save his friend, who is not a proficient swimmer. He gets the doctor stabilized and begins to hail the ship to bring them on board, but there is a noisy celebration going on and the crew cannot hear him. The ship obliviously continues on its course, leaving the two treading water in the middle of the Pacific.

Things do not look hopeful, but there follows some of the most exciting adventures encountered by Aubrey/Maturin in all their years together. It won't really be a spoiler to say that they do survive. Since there are ten more books in the series, that's pretty evident, but how they survive is the real heart of this book and the bang-up ending just puts the capper on it.

Some of the recent books have put the emphasis on Stephen Maturin's secret work as an intelligence agent. This one is centered on Jack Aubrey's skills as a sailor and his knowledge of the ocean - if not always of human nature. Their relationship continues to deepen and grow stronger through their shared experiences. They often give a thought to their wives back in England, and Aubrey to his children there, but, in fact, they are more married to each other than to any woman. They spend more time with each other than with any other humans. They are very much like an old married couple - each knowing what the other is thinking even before the thought is expressed. The other members of the crew, like Aubrey's man Killick and Maturin's Padeen, make up their extended family. The Surprise is very much a family and these stories, while nominally following the English Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812, are really about the relationships of this family and how they care for each other in often trying circumstances. So, yes, hubby was right about that.

One of the many pleasures of these books is the language. O'Brian obviously was a careful researcher and his language feels true to the period about which he is writing. I'm not competent to assess the accuracy of his nautical terms, many of which my eyes glide right over, but I suspect they are spot on. The language that really grabs me, though, is that of the dialogue. It is full of such humor and it just seems to be the way that sailors of the period would talk. It is a real treat to read a conversation between Maturin and Aubrey and, in this particular book, between Maturin and his friend Martin.

Both Maturin and Martin are enthusiastic naturalists and most of their conversations concern the flora and fauna of the places they visit. They are particularly good on the birds of those areas. For a backyard birder like myself, those conversations are really some of my favorite parts of this book.

There was, of course, a movie made a few years ago - "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" - which mostly relied on the events from this book. I saw the movie in the theater at the time and quite enjoyed it, although, now, I can't really recall too much about what happened in it. Now that I've read the book, maybe I should see it again.      


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