Thursday, 24 July 2014

James Cook’s New World: A Novel by Graeme Lay (Fourth Estate 2014)

This is the second novel in a trilogy that Lay has based on James Cook’s explorations around the Pacific.  The first novel, The Secret Life of James Cook relates Cook’s life as he leaves his family home to take up a shop keeper’s apprenticeship in a coastal town where he falls in love with the sea rather than the life of a shopkeeper.  We are shown Cook’s initiation into his career in the Navy where he is eventually charged with sailing the Endeavour to witness the 1769 transit of Venus, and then to find the Great Southern Continent.  The journey took three years, years in which he is separated from his wife and four children.  The novel shows Cook’s ambition, determination, and his annoyance at the class boundaries that exist in British society. He is also shown to have enlightened ideas about interactions between the British and the indigenous people of the Pacific.

Lay takes factual information about Cook and fictionalises it.  In doing so he attempts to get inside Cook’s head to show his emotional depth, rather than simply reiterate his journal entries of the journey which stick to the facts of the sea and weather.  Lay does this by having Cook write a journal for his wife Elizabeth which he presents to her on his return home.  While this is a good device I think there should have been more of it because the second half of the novel is concerned mainly with the journey, and while there are some of his thoughts about the ‘savages’ and his anger and/or fondness for the crew, I wonder whether we could have got closer to Cook’s thoughts.  I found myself reading passages that stopped abruptly where I thought more detail could have been related.

In the second book James Cook’s New World the same diary device is used by Lay and it works well.  I was captivated by the first part of the novel when he is home with Elizabeth and their children.  I liked reading Lay’s re-imagining of the Cook family dynamics, and the politics of the navy, in particular Cook and the Royal Navy trying to temper Joseph Banks’s ego.  Once Cook is aboard the Resolution for his second circumnavigation to find the Great Unknown Southern Continent, the journey narrative is similar to the first book with the similar risks, frustrations and interactions with indigenous peoples.  While on the first journey the botanist Banks was a bit of a slut and rather demanding in other areas of life too, the botanist on the Resolution was the complete opposite, but still rather annoying, showing that it is a hard road finding the perfect botanist.

The book is interesting in its relation of what life on board would have been like, and the hierarchy of ship life.  It is also humorous; Cook goes on a bit of a naming frenzy when he comes back to New Zealand which is rather amusing, and of course, rather colonialist of him.  There is added drama when Resolution’s support ship Adventure goes missing in the Pacific.  It is hard to imagine, in the current era of constant connection, that people are out of communication for years at a time.  The texting equivalent is cannon fire which only works when you’re in range.  If unfortunate events happen, there is just no way of telling anyone off the ship. The lack of connection, the isolation, is terrifying.

What I want to know more about is Elizabeth and how she coped with her husband being away for years at a time; what was it like to be a wife essentially in name only for three years?  I did enjoy Lay’s re-imagining of Cook’s journey but at the end of this novel, I want to read Elizabeth’s diary because it is her story that remains untold.

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