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A tragical farce,
This review is from: Rites of Passage (Sea Trilogy) (Paperback)
The year is 1814, when an old frigate sets sail from England, destined for Australia. Its captain is the gruff Anderson who has a short temper and rather roars than speaks. Aboard his ship is a motley crew: Mr. Brocklebank (a painter, given to drink) accompanied by his wife and daughter, the radical Mr. Prettiman, the staunch governess Miss Granham, ... and one Edmund Talbot who is godson to an English peer and on his way to join the staff of the governor of Australia. It is through Talbot's journal, kept for the benefit of his godfather, that we get the chronicle of this luckless ship.
The parson Mr. Colley, one of the other passengers, is what Trollope would call a 'hobbledehoy', and he soon becomes the object of ridicule among the other passengers and the ship's sailors. The consequences, ultimately, are tragical. Mr. Colley, one could say, fails to pass his rites of passage.
Until recently Golding was to me simply the author of 'Lord of the Flies', and having read that I foolishly assumed that he had written nothing else worthwhile reading. I readily grant now that I couldn't have been more mistaken. 'Rites of passage' is a truly marvelous novel in several respects. In the same way as with the island in 'Lord of the Flies', the ship in this book is a microcosm, reflecting and magnifying, as on a stage, the morals of society (and not just early 19th society). Though on the surface everyone aboard is polite, and the book abounds in farcical and ludicrous scenes, the tragic fate of Mr. Colley reveals the deeply embedded hypocrisy of each and every passenger.
Talbot himself too, however unwillingly, has to pass his own rites of passage in coming to terms with his behaviour towards Mr. Colley, and answer to himself the question to what degree he has been complicit in Colley's fate. In a stroke of genius Golding towards the end of the novel uses an excerpt from Colley's letter to his sister (never sent) to shift the point-of-view. Having read Colley's letter, Talbot realizes Colley regarded him as a true gentleman and possibly future friend, one however who abandoned Colley in his darkest hour of need. The fact that everyone else did the same (except for the 1st lieutenant Summers, whom Talbot half-mockingly labels 'A Good Man') is scant consolation. 'What would you, dear reader, have done?' is the question Golding seems to pose here, and it is an unsettling one to reflect upon.
All of this is narrated in a superbly crafted and beautiful language. It has rarely been brought home to me so forcibly how potent words can be in the hands of a master such as Golding. At times florid and colourful, on other occasions simple and straightforward, I continuously felt impelled to read on and on not just out of curiosity to know what happened next but also for the sheer joy of reading such exquisite prose. Language itself is in fact a theme in the book, from Talbot struggling (in vain) to master what he calls 'Tarpaulin', to captain Anderson using euphemisms to cover up the gruesome reality of what befell Mr. Colley.
The year has only just begun, and yet already now I would hazard to say this will to be one of my top reads of 2010. Or will the next part in the trilogy, 'Close Quarters', prove as good or even better? I am about to find out!