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Selkirk's Island Hardcover – 10 May 2001
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Diana Souhami's Selkirk's Island is not the first book about the extraordinary, real-life adventures of the Scotsman, Alexander Selkirk--that credit must go to a rather better-known book, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Nor, doubtless, will it be the last. But it might be the best. Diana Souhami's book commands superlatives for every reason. The author of previous, outstanding biographies, including the prizewinning The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, Souhami has produced a marvellous account of what life was like on the remote, rain-swept (not desert) island of Juan Fernandez. Selkirk chose to remain on the island in 1704, when he sensed that the piratical voyage he had joined himself to was sinking fast. His shipmates sailed on and left him. For four years he survived in total solitude, hunting the wild goats on the island and clubbing them to death, building a hut from the branches of sandalwood trees, and making fire with dry sticks. Souhami brings everything to life with vivid, imaginary vignettes: "A boa constrictor arrived coiled in the hollow of a cut tree. It had journeyed from Brazil for seven weeks over choppy seas. The tree washed ashore with the turning tide. It sloughed its skin and danced alone." When at last two ships sailed into Juan Fernandez's tiny harbour, quite by chance, they found a bearded, savage-looking man, who could only utter the one word: "Marooned!" Souhami is brilliant on the natural history, on the physical details, on the sheer, intractable character of the material world that Selkirk had to deal with--and all these things demand that you, the reader, ask yourself: "Could I have done this? Would I have survived?" This is what makes Selkirk's Island compelling, fascinating reading, and the three double-page colour photographs of the island are breathtaking. --Christopher Hart
Although not the first examination of Alexander Selkirk's celebrated sojourn on Juan Fernandez Island (R L Megroz's The Real Robinson Crusoe immediately springs to mind as a straightforward earlier account), Souhami's stands with the best of them. As a pirate and buccaneer, Selkirk sailed the South Seas. In 1703, he joined a plundering expedition and, after experiencing appalling shipboard conditions, he opted to maroon himself on an island 400 miles off the coast of Chile. This book gives an authoritative account of the colourful story, using journals of those who dumped and rescued Selkirk, as well as Souhami's own visit to the island. Selkirk's life falls neatly into three stages: Early Life, The Maroon, and After. Add to this Defoe's literary classic, with the notoriety that sprang from the sailor's adventures, and the result is fertile ground for any writer. Souhami shows a sure mastery of sources and is consistently entertaining. The Tom Hanks film Cast Away will inevitably add interest to related titles, ensuring Selkirk's Island will not remain unvisited once published.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
This is a good read. I was sorry when it was finished.
Although titled 'Selkirk's Island', the bulk of the book concens life at sea, which it portrays as truly terrible. Crews were generally made up of misfits willing to endure terrrible hardship for the promise of Spanish gold. Scurvy, hunger, illness and death were the more likely rewards.
I found the evocation of life at sea more compelling than the one chapter devoted to Selkirk's time on the island. Overall though, the book is a good balance, offering a vivid insight into the life of a seaman as much as into Selkirk himself.
With diligent research and hands-on experience of the actual island, she conjures up a vision of Crusoe's home which is not too different from the almost idyllic place that Defoe described.
With beautiful, almost poetic prose, the island, its topography, streams, flora, fauna and appearance are described with graphic imagery, taking one THERE in one's mind.
The explorers (mostly privateers) who used the island as a base are also described in great detail, particularly Dampier,with whom Selkirk sailed. Salutary tales of others marooned, barely surving, precede a description of Selkirk's own marooning, requested in a fit of pique and immediately regretted.
We see how he lived, not too uncomfortably, thanks to his family trade and experience as a seaman, but there are some lurid tales of bestiality - be warned.
We then read, in a protracted sequence, how he is rescued and arrives back in England in glory, then descends into obcurity. His story is taken up and embellished by Daniel Defoe ... The rest is history.
Ms.Souhami visits the island and sees for herself where and how Selkirk might have lived and, as a tail-piece, recounts how conservation authorities are trying to restore the island to its pre-Selkirk condition. ****.
Not only are we introduced to the main protaganists in Selkirks life such as Dampier a cowardly Sea Captain but we are enlightened on the botany and geography of the island including its current occupants.
A well researched study that is highly readable albeit brief.
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Most recent customer reviews
What an opportunity missed.
What dreadful maps and illustrations.
What a 'bitty' style.Read more