Tuesday, February 09, 2021

1. The Adventures of Ben Gunn by R.F. Delderfield

Past performance does not indicate future results.  Wow, after the last two years of consistent reading, I totally fell off in the end of 2020 and early 2021.  I gave myself a break after achieving my goal last year, played videogames, watched a lot of sports and too much twitter.  Somehow it turned into a pit of pleasant lassitude that is now catching up to me.  I did at least complete an entire videogame (Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and the expansions).  And the post-Trump insurrection social media world was entertaining enough to bring my addiction flaring back (at least when social media is stressful and depressing you are really motivated to get out of it).  I guess my struggle with laziness will last my entire life and I cannot ever let up my efforts.  Enough wanking, on to the review!

I am now a full fan of R.E. Delderfield and will pick up his books when I find them. This was a real score, a lovely Coronet paperback of his unofficial sequel to Treasure Island.  When I found it, I realized I needed to reread the original, which turned out to be a great pleasure.  The conceit of The Treasures of Ben Gunn is that James Hawkins, now a comfortable middle-aged landowner, became the employer of Ben Gunn, the castaway on Treasure Island.  Once the latter passed on, Hawkins felt he could tell his tale as Ben had told him.  This tale also tells the story of Long John Silver and the origin of the treasure. It's a great idea and most well executed, though one wonders if it is right to actually write down a tale that may have been better left for each reader's own speculation.  This applies not only to the backstory but also the fate of the characters.  I felt sort of sad at the end of this knowing that the rest of James Hawkins life, though a good one, did not lead to much more adventure.

Ben Gunn's story starts out on land, on an estate in England with a new Lord who is a tyrant about following the laws. His rigidity and his asshole, drunken loser son, make the lives of their tenants miserable.  Nick Allardyce, whose skeleton you may or may not recall, pointed to the treasure, was a young squire who runs afoul of the masters of the estate.  He and Ben Gunn, after an altercation where the son is killed, are forced to flee England.  Their paths in the oceans eventually lead them to Captain Flint, Long John Silver and a life of piracy.

The opening section feels very Delderfieldesque and brings the reader some righteousness at the injustice.  The middle part of the book, where we follow the adventures of the pirates, somehow lacked excitement for me. It was very historically accurate, rich in location and situation, but somehow there wasn't enough of a real foil or narrative through line to get me fired up the way Treasure Island did.  Once Ben Gunn gets marooned, we get a mini-Robinson Crusoe, which I always enjoy, as well as his redemption.  This development as it aligned with the Treasure Island narrative (when the pirates return) was quite fun to read.  So it does fill in the backstory nicely but somehow didn't grip me the way a good pirate story should.  I will have to read more Delderfield, but my sense is that his strength is in the long, slow narrative, punctuated with moments of satisfying character and Englishness rather than the flash bang of a true adventure novelist.  Still, very enjoyable and I am happy to have this on my too-full bookshelves.

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