Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

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Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A great historical feast as a fictional cabin boy leads us into the company of Captain William Bligh and the troubled commands he led in the 1780s. An excellent and thoroughly vivid and enjoyable read that gets the fullest recommendation.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385611664

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John Jacob Turnstile is one of a kind among the scamps and pickpockets that frequent Portsmouth's dockside. Not for his brilliance at his 'honest thievery' as he persists in calling it, but certainly in his acerbic wit, humorous narrative, and indeed the fate that will whisk him away from the English coast into such a dramatic adventure that the mind – especially his 14-year old one – can only boggle.

Caught attempting to relieve a French-sounding gent from his fob watch he faces an especially unfriendly magistrate, who in those far-off days of rapid justice, decides within the hour to give him a year in jail. However a certain someone – guess who?! – decides to let the boy honour a pledge instead – to become ship's boy to a captain of a certain clipper waiting on the dockside ready to sail. The ship? The Bounty. The Captain? Bligh.

There is a slight tinge of regret that the book begins with such a familiar introduction, of the Dickensian side of things – boy, (in)justice, benefactor. You know throughout what will happen. But that is the slightest tinge, as the book is just so startlingly well written it is very awkward to notice. It's perfectly clear from the get-go that this book will be one of the most sterlingly vivid, fast-paced, and laugh-out-loud funny historical novels you can choose to read.

Indeed, the second miniscule twinge is that the story of the Bounty and its starving company will be forced to wear such jolly apparel. It equally quickly passes. Once on board Turnstile finds his tasks, of tidying up after and catering for Bligh, and a host of other officers, quite impossible while he struggles to find his sea legs. Not easy either is the fact that he is immediately made aware that he is the lowest of the low, and must bow to even a boy of his own age.

Turnstile is a brilliant creation. With a most charming sharp sense of humour, even in defeat – he thanks the policemen on his jail cart for driving over all the potholes, as at least it numbs his backside ready for the lashing he expects – he is perhaps fiction's most delightfully egotistical narrator. He neither knows nor cares much for the seas, and instead has the most handy knack of telling us just what we do want to know – about him, about the weaselly ship's Clerk, Samuel, and of course about all that goes on when Tahiti is neared, and the matter of the, er, loose female inhabitants hoves into view.

Also of superlative note is the way the historical research has been worn so lightly. I think we can all sleep soundly that the people where described are done so accurately – as are everything else, from the pictures, crockery and other things Bligh voyaged alongside, to all the crates ready for the bread-fruits. And when it comes to the nitty-gritty of who was loyal to Bligh, who sided with Fletcher Christian and who wasn't around to have a say in the matter, there is another strong sense, that of a full historical record being converted into the most enjoyably readable fiction.

Indeed, it is almost with a grimace that one finds that Turnstile is a made-up character. But with this approach we are only thankful he does now exist, and immensely happy he can prowl the decks and cabins of the Bounty and let us know what no-one in real life was probably ever able to.

Fletcher Christian, to Turnstile, appeared before us like the very model of a handsome naval officer, such as might be displayed in the windows of a tailor's premises in London. He had the manner of one who had slept in a clean bed in a Parisian whorehouse the night before and managed eight hours sleep after doing the unspeakables not once, not twice, but thrice. I very rarely quote on this site, but it goes to show the levity, polite bawdiness and smarts Turnstile has.

And while a lot of the book's female readers may well find that paragraph and dream up a young Mel Gibson in that there film of the same story, I have to report the style of the writing, however naïve, bragging or ignorantly endangered our narrator is, allows for the most vivid, fresh images to drip off the page into the reader's mind.

I don't know, perhaps I just want to pre-empt any other reviews of this book you might find, so I'll mention the annoying large gap where the weasel Samuel is not mentioned, I'll mention the way the expression 'two peas in a pod' seemed to mean the exact opposite in the olden days, and I'll go some to acknowledge the loss of humour, ego and innocence Turnstile undergoes as he gets immune to the sea's travails and his narrative shifts continuously (partly in light of older Turnstile memories getting evoked). And I'll try and let you rest assured they don't matter one jot.

Indeed the fact that the book features such sober historical details with such breezy elements is just another strand of its novelty factor. Here is no disrespect for the many present descendants of the Bounty crew, but for those willing to step away from the excellent plot a very intriguing way to be analysed whereby Boyne manages to disguise a story that can be looked up online with one click in the most engaging, satisfying and just brilliant way.

As brilliant as The Raft by Arabella Edge may have been, this book has usurped it as the finest nautical historical fiction book on this website. I loved it. My proof copy seemed to have a couple of jumps and errors in the reported timeline on Tahiti (chapters 11 and 12 of part 3 seemed inconsistent), which raised an eyebrow, but I am confident nothing will get in the way of this being a much appreciated and avidly read book. It can only get the strongest, five-star recommendation from the Bookbag.

As weird as it may seem, Crippen: A Novel of Murder might even be considered a sequel of this book, despite being written four years prior. Again it features a highly dramatic nautical journey the reading public really should know more about; one of the Captains on board is a great fan of the Bounty history; and one of Boyne’s invented characters makes a return.

It’s quite outstanding how Boyne can take the complete Michael about the English, about class, and Edwardian sexuality and romance, but still provide an utterly convincing look at a wife-killing convict on the run. The story’s many jumps in time and circumstance allow a most vivid fictionalisation of what nobody can be sure actually happened, alongside a nigh-on soapy look at some odd fellow voyagers and their interactions. I’d give it five stars, just as everything by him I have been able to get my grubby paws on.

Booklists.jpg Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.

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