The Raft by Arabella Edge

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The Raft by Arabella Edge

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The combined story of a tiny community of stranded people on a raft off the African coast, and the painter inspired by their tale to create his masterpiece, makes for a gripping historical read that is highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330418485

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June 1818, France. Theodore Gericault is living a very comfortable life. He has been able to avoid all Napoleonic campaigns, the French Revolution et al, and has been born instead with a bit of a silver spoon in his mouth. His mother has died, leaving him enough to live on, and his uncle has diverted him from the family tobacco factory to enable him to be an artist. A painter, what's more, that doesn't need to beg and scrape for royal and other portrait commissions.

This has not stopped him having a diverting relationship with his uncle's new, much younger bride, Alexandrine. His first work has won acclaim, in the form of a gold medal at least, but he has struggled since - he has created lots of portraits of Alexandrine, or at least allowed her to sit naked for him lots of times.

We see him though arriving from a sojourn in Rome to bewilderment as to his next inspiration, which comes in the form of a shocking news story he was able to miss while in Italy. A convoy of four boats, sent to Africa on colonial business, has created a tragedy. One boat, the Medusa, grounded on a sandbank off the coast, piloted as it was by an inept pilot, and under an inept captain. Without trying their hardest, the powers that be on the boat, which had stupidly sped away from the other three, and gone off course, launch the regulation little boats to make their own way to land.

However, the Medusa was heavily over-laden, and 150 people are left to sit it out on a quickly-made raft, cobbled together by the masts and available wood from the abandoned Medusa. They should be towed to safety behind the three proper craft, but are not. And by the time any other ship arrives in the area, fifteen souls are all that are left.

Gericault is stunned by this, and what's more is able to read how the fifteen have not returned to tears of relief, or heroes' welcomes. They have been shouted down instead as cannibals for daring to suggest the whole instance could have been avoided.

Gericault does not know quite how to depict the social side of this story, but knows there is a great work to come from it. With the help of his funds and his lavish accommodation, he houses two of the survivors - the ship's surgeon and the mission cartographer - to find out the truth, and from it find the artistic essence.

The book swerves in oceanic waves from Gericault's problems creating the painting, to the problems of the inhabitants of the raft, and recollection of this book is thus equally divided. The narrative of the raft is compelling, as the truth is oppressed, not divulged, or just too shocking to be recalled. Drifts into flashback in the first chapters seem to not work, but are a foretaste of what is to come, as Gericault fine-tunes his topic with his own imagination, public rumour, and the testimony of his new associates.

It's quite evident from the telling of life on board that the tragedy was down to class - with the governor's family being transported on the Medusa, and influencing the captain and his stupid decisions. The important people get the safe seats to shore, of course. Those deemed mutinous or surplus to requirements, are on the raft, at least to begin with.

Arabella Edge is perfectly at home in depicting life on board ship and raft, and in the studio of Gericault, as he spends money on the finest colours for his paints, copious time on sketches, and research trips to place you'd rather not go to. There is a subtext about the cost of creating great art, as not only Alexandrine gets discarded in the creation of the painting.

The character of Gericault rings true in every aspect. He doesn't look inward too much, and seldom acknowledges how alien his life must be for people fresh from surviving the raft, but there is no irony or biographical information that stops us liking him. His lover, his uncle, his assistants in the telling of the story in paint are all importantly rounded characters.

I am always a little wary of reading books such as this, for if they are poor they are a misrepresentation of what went on. And if they are good - and I think this is very good - they make one urgent to read more. If I would wish for just a touch more biographical information - what value is the gold medal for the first painting as regards rarity? - I leave the book fully trusting the narrative as a creative account of the history of the artwork. I would have to read on to find out if the truth of life on the raft is real, or artistic supposition, but it all feels right. Edge's writing feels perfect for her narrative, too - filmic yet detailed, and not trying to be "about" anything but its own narrative.

I'm left knowing a lot more about Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa, and every reader must be intent on chasing the image in full, as some bizarre choice has left just half of it as the book's cover image. I'm certainly left having read a great story well told, that deserves to be the best-selling book about the making of a painting since Girl With a Pearl Ear-ring - and more so for being bounded so well in a fascinating real-life story.

My thanks to the publishers for sending this volume to the Bookbag.

Booklists.jpg The Raft by Arabella Edge is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.

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Magda said:

There was a strand about this in History of the World in 10.5 chapters, wasn't it? Trouble is, I just can't seem to remember that bit (the behemots and reindeer etc etc somehow overshadow it).

John replied:

Yes Magda, I thought there was one, which I wanted to refer to in the further reading strand but I didn't have time to check with any certainty.