Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Treasure in Motion

I'm sadly quite ignorant when it comes to the world of poetry. I do have a few favorites, most notably W. S. Merwin, but I just don't read that much poetry and don't understand much of what I do read. That said, I do have a lot of respect and admiration for poets. I sometimes think that they are the truest artisans of the literary world, with the greatest skill at making words sing.

One of the poets I admire from a distance is Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. In the US, the title Poet Laureate is mostly honorary: we choose a new poet every year, primarily to honor their past contributions to the field. In the UK, it has historically been a lifetime appointment, similar to a Supreme Court appointment in the US, and it's an office with actual duties: the Poet Laureate is expected to write poetry commemorating particularly significant occasions, such as royal weddings and military victories.

I was fortunate enough to briefly meet Mr. Motion when he visited Washington University and attended a reception the English Department hosted while I was a student there. He seemed to be a wonderful man, very talented and charming, and I greatly enjoyed hearing him reading from his own work. I've kept loose tabs on him in the years since, and was surprised and pleased to hear about an unusual project he has released: a sequel to the Robert Louis Stevenson novel "Treasure Island". Titled "Silver: Return to Treasure Island," this novel is both a tribute to and a fitting sequel to the original story of adventure.

It's been ages since I read Treasure Island; I think I was probably in elementary school at the time, and haven't re-read it since. However, thanks to the book's enormous presence in our collective imagination, and frequent source of homage, parody, and adaptation, the story has remained very fresh with me. It was a great pleasure to become re-acquainted with so many elements from the first book. Within the context of Silver, the events of Treasure Island are already a storied memory, and so when characters recall Billy Bones or Israel Hands or the cabin on the island, my own memories of  those elements leap across the years, suddenly becoming fresh once more and reuniting this adult reader with the child reader who first encountered them.

Stylistically, the book is very well written. Motion doesn't exactly try to copy Stevenson's 19th-century writing style, but writes in a clear, warm style that uses idioms which feel evocative of the era. This book uses a different narrator, and is set more than thirty years later, so this feels like a natural evolution. While it's certainly a novel, I think Motion's talents come through quite well: the language is quite beautiful, and Motion often chooses the perfect word; he has a particular gift for capturing the tender adolescent longing of the protagonist. There are also a handful of places in the book where characters sing, and I suspect that these verses are original creations by Motion.


Silver follows the story of Jim Hawkins, the son of Jim Hawkins from the original story, and Natty Silver, the daughter of Long John Silver. After opening in London, where the two encounter and we meet their elderly fathers, the book eventually heads out to the open sea and the titular return to Treasure Island. We have some of the same general movements as the original book, and the characters here are aware of the ways in which they're following their predecessors' footsteps, but the plot and personalities are different enough for this to feel more like a sequel than a retread.

The world has changed quite a lot in the decades since Treasure Island: navies have mostly removed the threat of pirates from the Caribbean, and sailing in general is safer than before. However, there are still evil men in the world, and other institutions at least as bad as piracy. I was impressed at how well Motion was able to recapture a sense of danger and outrage even in a more elevated world.

Characters in the book are all well-created. Even the cameos from the first book, Jim Hawkins Sr. and John Silver, are rather different from how we would recognize them: events in the years since Treasure Island have changed them, altering their personality or transforming their drives. Many of the minor characters are rather briefly sketched, but we still feel like we know them well: the awkwardly loyal Bo'sun, the diligent lookout, the bubbly cook. There's a particular affection for the captain, who ends up being possibly more of a father figure to Jim than his own father is. I really liked how the book portrayed their relationship, which is formal and respectful yet genuinely kind.

The core relationship, though, is that between Jim and Natty. Much of this remains unsaid, partly because Jim isn't sure how to convey his feelings, and partly because a few words go a long way in expressing it. Natty spends much of the book in disguise as a boy, adding another layer of separation between the two, which adds a slight note of comedy to their situation while simultaneously heightening Jim's protectiveness. Natty herself is a great character: absolutely not defined in relationship to Jim, she is instead often the main driver of the action, plunging ahead with boldness and trusting Jim to keep up.


I'll be curious to see if Motion writes any other sequels to this story; he definitely leaves this book at a point where it could be continued further. If so, I'll be eager to follow it. This was a fairly light read, and an enjoyable one, nicely blending fine writing with an adventurous story. If your heart was ever stirred by Stevenson's original tale, you might enjoy reading this as well.

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