Resolution by A N Wilson

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Resolution by A N Wilson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: From a prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction, a meticulously researched novel about George Forster, one of the naturalists on Captain Cook's second voyage. Wilson contrasts the eventful journey itself with the two decades that followed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: September 2016
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781782398271

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In 1772 Reinhold Forster and his son George were hired as ship's naturalists for the Resolution, the vessel Captain James Cook piloted to New Zealand and back on a three-year voyage of discovery. Once a Lutheran pastor near Danzig, Reinhold seemed unable to settle to one line of work and had a higher opinion of himself than was prudent. In Wilson's vision of life on the Resolution, Reinhold seems fussy, argumentative and rather heartless, as when he offers George's dog up as fresh meat when the captain is desperately ill. George, just 18 when he joins the expedition, is a self-taught illustrator and botanist with a keen ear for languages. Though precociously intelligent, he is emotionally immature and cannot keep a handle on his masturbation habit or deal with their servant Nally's crush on him.

Rather than giving a simple chronological account of the journey and its aftermath, as I imagine many authors would have, Wilson employs a sophisticated structure that alternates vignettes from the voyage with scenes from George's later years. Each Part sets one chapter on board the Resolution and another about 10 years later, when George is unhappily married to Therese and struggling to find suitable work. He and Therese both know they've made a terrible mistake in marrying the wrong person. Therese takes a lover and absconds for Switzerland with George's two children. There she writes a novel based on George's travels – a case of real life being stranger than fiction. Meanwhile, George goes to France as a deputé in 1793, getting a front row seat for the revolutionary fervour. The action thus careens from the Resolution to the Revolution.

We learn of George's shame that his account of the voyage, which Reinhold had published hastily after their return to Europe, was a slight to Cook, whose own reminiscences did not appear until later. Easy to forget that Cook was a Yorkshireman, but here Wilson endows him with the proper accent and makes him a compelling figure of ambition and resolve.

The shorter chapters set onboard ship are more gripping than those from the 1780s and 90s, with particular highlights including the penguins and Southern Lights of the Antarctic Circle, the crew's debauchery with Tahitian natives, and the eerie sight of the toppled stone heads on Easter Island after a civil war between plebeians and the aristocracy. Perhaps inevitably, George's later life cannot match the excitement of the Resolution years. In the 1770s chapters Wilson vividly captures the golden combination of camaraderie and new experience in passages such as the following:

'In the waters they named Christmas Sound they found enough sustenance to give a splendid feast to every man aboard: mussels, with wild celery which grew abundantly on the rocks, duck, shag, and many upland geese which found themselves boiled, roasted and encased in Pattinson's excellent short pastry before the dawning of the Nativity. The absence of any human habitation, the impossibility of imagining human beings here, made many of them, not merely George, feel weirdly like the last people left on the planet.'

This is the second historical novel I've read by A.N. Wilson, after The Potter's Hand (whose main character, Josiah Wedgwood, has a cameo role here). I find his fiction to be thoroughly convincing as well as engaging. This reminded me most of Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, not least because the Humboldt brothers make a brief appearance. Like Kehlmann's novel, this is a rip-roaring tale of exploration even though its prose emulates the more detached narrative style of the eighteenth century. The historical figures make lively characters, and themes of family, purpose and the search for true love are ever relevant. I'd recommend this to any readers of historical fiction and adventure stories.

Further reading suggestion: If you like the sound of Wilson's style and are interested in this time period, you must also read The Potter's Hand. Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance by Patricia Duncker is a similar historical pastiche.

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