Reviewed by Rowland Jones
Our narrator, Jim Hawkins… Ah, Jim Hawkins as of Treasure Island you may ask? Well, yes and no. This is Jim Hawkins the son, who has also been to the island. Original Jim is now in London at his hostelry, the Hispaniola, out near the marshes. Young Jim receives a secret visit from Natty Silver, daughter of guess who? Long John is also now in Wapping, London, his wife being proprietor of The Spyglass Inn, though I’m not clear about the parrot. Natty and young Jim then set off back to the island, Jim having stolen his father’s treasure map, for an adventure in pursuit of silver left behind from the original expedition. This story, having been detailed in the previous Andrew Motion novel entitled unsurprisingly ‘Silver’, uniting neatly the treasure and Long John, now finds its sequel, as on their return journey they are shipwrecked by a hurricane on the coast of Texas. Not Texas as we know it, but Texas as it is in 1802 – no Ewings in Dallas, NASA in Houston and not a whisper of a Country and Western song.
As the narrative begins, Jim hangs between life and death, at the deciding point of a near death experience from which vantage point he describes the world he is about to leave or return to, as is the case. He sees the sunken ship, the treasure with it, the surroundings, Natty, his fellow survivor, and a cliff carved with hideous creatures and events with a path to its top. His love for Natty draws him back to life and provides us with this narrative written in 1842, from the Hispaniola, the inn where he has lived much of his life. Perhaps the near-death experience is a signal to the reader that this is not only historical fiction and we might expect more.
There is a third survivor, a kindly Scottish soul who has helped them throughout their adventures, called Stevenson, who is quickly dismissed as savages overwhelm them, salvage the treasure and march Natty and Jim off to their settlement, to imprison them while they await their fate. The departure of Stevenson may also be a farewell to the original author as the events move away from Treasure Island and into a new world as the title suggests, though the pursuit of a treasure drives the narrative nonetheless.
As Natty and Jim suffer their incarceration, fed on porridge and water by a mother and her daughter, they spy on the alien behaviour of the settlement and witness the demise of a fellow native prisoner whose gruesome end brings to mind the world of Tudor England and its executions. In contrast, Jim often thinks of his upbringing by his kindly father and regrets his betrayal of him, stealing the treasure map, seduced by Natty and the bar of silver she uses as bait. Natty herself is an equivocal being, blowing hot and cold, turning consoling and harshly realistic at Jim’s romanticising of their situation. It passes through the mind that she is Eve, with her silver apple, and Jim’s betrayal his fall, finally expelling him from Eden into this wilderness and their dire situation. Jim’s memories of home and childhood, his kindly father, solicitous in his troubles and illnesses, his surroundings by the marshes and the River Thames where drunks fall to their deaths, are Dickensian and for this reader call out of the mists Pip, the discarded Joe Gargery and the seductive and destructive Estelle in Great Expectations. Andrew Motion evoked Victorian and modern writers in his previous work and there may also be a sense of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Golding’s Lord of the Flies here too.
When the chief, Black Cloud, and his magic man return, a huge drunken celebration ensues, and Natty (much the more spirited and resourceful) and Jim make their escape, aided by the young girl who has fed them. They take with them the chief’s most prized possession, a symbol of his status and power, ensuring his pursuit and setting up the main story to follow. It is Natty who directs the theft and escape, indicating not only the desirable challenge she presents to Jim , but also the challenge she presents to gender stereotypes, particularly as we see her set against a variety of models of more traditional womanhood. Of course we see everything through Jim’s eyes and, like Pip before him, he often reveals himself to have misread her and the situations they are in as a result of his feelings towards her.
As might be expected there are poetic descriptions interspersed into the narrative, never indulgently lingering or floridly glutinous, which is often what passes for ‘poetic’ in other narratives with aspirations to such features. These are sharp and finely sculpted, bringing their subjects into clean focus. One particular paragraph, fancifully perhaps, seemed to capture the cadences at the opening of Great Expectations again, a description of the native women beginning their day:
The women kneeling as they swept their wet hair from their eyes, and the water-drops sliding from their elbows and fingers, and the river crinkled by the breeze, and the vast and level country stretching beyond, and the rust-red sky, and the thin straight line of charcoal along the horizon. (144)
This description is of Natty and Jim’s next place of stay, a complete opposite to their imprisonment by Black Cloud. Here White Feather and his medicine man Hoopoe preside under the beliefs of the Great Spirit, a worldview which, ‘describes the high-minded feeling of cooperation that ideally exists between people of different sorts, and also between the creatures they live among’. If Natty and Jim’s first encounter with native culture was paradise lost, this would be paradise regained, a place of peaceful sojourn until they are forced to move on again.
The remainder of their adventure sees them making a long and arduous journey, encountering a variety of significant characters and places, each depicting different facets of human nature and society and allowing us to reflect upon them, while further developing Jim and Natty’s relationship in complex ways.
Andrew Motion’s novel is both a good adventure story and a powerful consideration and depiction of the white races’ incursion into America. It depicts the kindness and good intentions of many and the rapacity, greed and ecological destruction of others. At its heart is the fact that despite their goodness, Natty and Jim are fleeing as they too have taken something precious from one of the inhabitants of this new land.
Finally it is worth noting that the issues of gender, land dispute, economic exploitation, environmental and ecological despoliation, which among others, are at the centre of this narrative, form a major part of the news diet we are offered each day. While possibly reading it with an eye on such matters, first and foremost, read this rich novel for its narrative and characters and scenes. They will reward you well for your interest.
Rowland Jones still doesn’t have a blog, despite Victoria’s nagging that he should get one.
Andrew Motion, The New World (Jonathan Cape, London, Oct 2014) 978-0224097949, Hardback, 368 pages.