Bookshot #169: The Far Side of The World
I went to the library a couple of weeks ago, not really intending to check out books, but somehow ended
up with three books I had not planned on reading- one of which was Patrick O'Brian's The Far Side Of The World. This might be hard to believe, but I had never actually read any of the Aubrey-Maturin series and it had been years since I had seen the movie, but after a conversation with a co-worker lead me down the rabbit hole, I watched the movie. Then, that day in the library, I decided to check out the book to see what the book was like.
Granted, the movie wasn't a straight adaptation of the book- elements were pulled from three other novels and the time period was tweaked-- instead of 1812 and an American whaling ship, the movie takes place in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars- little did I know but that would be just the first and most basic difference between the book and the movie.
The book is wild, y'all. I mean, don't get me wrong, I could write a whole post about the movie and how perfect it is and Lord knows, it must be some kind of anniversary of the film or something because there have been thought pieces aplenty about the movie, but let's stick with the book.
Right off the bat: Maturin is a man of many talents. He's a doctor, a naturalist, and a spy. Did not see that one coming at all. And, unlike the movie, which opens with them already at sea, the book begins with Aubrey reporting to Admiral Ives now in Gibraltar, hoping for one last mission on the HMS Surprise before it's sent home to be broken up. (I guess at this point, it's getting to be kind of an old ship- at least in the series- since this is the tenth novel at all.)
Maturin has delivered a Mrs. Fielding safely to her husband in Gibraltar-- saving her from two assassins in Malta along the way and he broke up the French Intelligence network there, with all but one spy safely taken. Maturin's wife has caught wind of his supposed infidelity on this mission with Mrs. Fielding and so he has to write to her to reassure her that everything is on the up and up-- unfortunately, his letter is given to Andrew Wray, who is secretly a French agent.
In the meantime, Aubrey and the Surprise get their new orders: go protect British whalers in the Pacific from the American frigate USS Norfolk (because surprise: it's the war of 1812, everyone, so the bad guys are the Americans, not the French!) After a frantic loading of additional crew and supplies, the Surprise sets sail from Gibraltar and the book more or less roughly follows the plot of the movie after that. They chase her around Cape Horn. They marvel at the natural beauty of the Galapagos- though Steven doesn't get to go ashore like he does in the movie and in the end, they run down the whaler and capture the crew- but there are some important things to note along the way.
There's a scandalous affair.
Yes, the wife of the gunner, Mrs. Horner, engages in an affair with Hollum and she gets pregnant. Steven won't do the abortion, but his assistant Higgins does.
Yes, there's an abortion. Followed by murder! When they stop at the Juan Fernandez Islands to refit, the gunner kills his wife and Hollum and then boards the boat and threatens first Maturin, then Higgins, and then Higgins disappears and Horner hangs himself in his cabin.
Y'all, the movie is great. The book is absolutely wild.
It gets even wilder after that: Maturin and Aubrey fall off the ship and aren't missed until morning and then they're rescued on a pahi by a crew women who I'm pretty sure are meant to be cannibals. So there's that. They get rescued by the Surprise and then are promptly caught up in the tail end of a typhoon where Maturin suffers a severe head injury and lapses into a coma. Then, they find their quarry, wrecked on a reef of an island and they go ashore for surgery-- as their new surgical assistant (wisely and reasonably, I think) did not want to perform trepanning on a moving boat. There, they find the marooned crew of the Norfolk who are amiable at first and willing to help with the surgery, but before they drill into Maturin's head, he wakes back up.
One final wrinkle and showdown await between the two crews who get stranded on the island together-- some of the whalers are mutineers and deserters from the HMS Hermione and face death if they're returned to British custody-- but eventually, after a brief dust-up on the island, the whaler returns, only she's being chased down by the Surprise, who finally, after a long time at sea, hits her target.
Overall: You could write a whole book comparing the book and the movie-- I love the movie for entirely different reasons-- I think it probably comes the closest to capturing what life was actually like on naval vessels in the 19th Century and it's pretty kick-ass too. (I've heard it described as a really excellent Star Trek film, which is dead on. Change the setting and it's perfect.) The book provides depth that the movie doesn't and in all the right ways. Maturin is immediately more interesting. The twists and turns aboard are on another level and totally unexpected (poor silly me was expecting the book to be closer to the movie than it actually was).
I think if you really get down into the technical terminology (there's a helpful chart at the front of the book) you're probably going to enjoy these more than if you're just doing a casual read. I wouldn't call them inaccessible, by any stretch of the imagination, but I would say that the language is reflective of the time period and probably historically accurate to boot, so if you have trouble connecting with these books, that's probably going to be why. (I think, but I don't know that these books are sort of hit or miss. Seems like people who love them LOVE them and people that don't probably just watch the movie instead.)
Would I double back and start this series at the beginning? I might. It was an enjoyable enough book-- I don't think it's going to make me run out to the library to get the next book in the series, but yeah, if I get around to it, I'd read more of these. My Grade: call it a solid *** out of ****