Story of a mutiny retold

2008-07-16 00:00

THE last book by John Boyne I read was The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas — the strange, compelling and sinister tale of the Holocaust seen through the uncomprehending eyes of a child whose father is in charge of a concentration camp. It was an extraordinary book although it made me uncomfortable in a number of ways, and having read it, I was expecting the unexpected from Boyne’s retelling of the story of William Bligh and Fletcher Christian and the infamous 1787 mutiny on HMS Bounty.

But although the blurb promises “a very different portrait of Captain Bligh and Mr Christian than has ever been shown before”, I didn’t reach the end feeling that there had been any kind of revelation. Sure, Boyne makes Christian the villain of the piece, and he shows Bligh as a flawed hero, but that is hardly new. We knew already that Bligh had contributed to his downfall and that Christian completed it; we knew that only by superb seamanship did Bligh bring the non-mutineers back to safety. So what’s new?

Boyne makes his narrator John Jacob Turnstile, a lad who lives in the kind of establishment that Charles Dickens immortalised in his creation of Oliver Twist and Fagin. Dickens, conscious of the sensibilities of the age in which he wrote, made Fagin’s boys merely thieves; Boyne makes them male prostitutes as well. Having fallen into the hands of the authorities, Turnstile is given a chance to escape jail by going to sea on the Bounty as a replacement for William Bligh’s servant — with hindsight, a dubiously wise choice.

Turnstile’s story is entertaining enough, but predictable. After all, the story of the Bounty is well known, and, despite some nice fictional touches, and a nod in the direction of politically correct attitudes to the colonising enterprise of the 18th century, it is ultimately a bit of a plod. As he did in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne shows that actions have consequences, often unpleasant ones, but that is not much of a surprise here either.

Margaret von Klemperer

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