Book Review: The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian

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Like many who are now discovering the thrills and pleasures of Patrick O’’Brian’’s naval fiction, my first exposure to the Aubrey-Maturin series was the film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. A film with two titles, taken respectively from the first and the tenth book in this twenty-book series. As I read the first nine books, I gathered that the film title was meant to “book-end” the part of the series from which the script was taken. For nearly every book contained at least one scene or piece of dialogue that I remembered from the movie. So by the time I started reading The Far Side of the World, I wondered what would be left of the film’s storyline that I hadn’’t already read.

Not very many things were left, I found. Basically, this book furnishes the setting of the movie: the decks of HMS Surprise in pursuit of an enemy ship, down the Atlantic Coast of South America and up the Pacific side. It also introduces (and in some cases, disposes of) several of the memorable, minor characters that you saw in the movie. But apart from that, trust me, the film doesn’t give away anything that happens in this book. No matter how many times you have seen the film, it is still worth your while to read this book!

Against all likelihood, given his seniority and his accomplishments, Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey still has not been given a “ship of the line” to command – not permanently, anyway. After a series of temporary commands and an unusually long run of adventures in the frigate Surprise, Aubrey has learned that the Surprise is about to be put out of service. His heart is heavy, for it means he will be set on land without a command, facing financial ruin at home, while his crack crew is broken up and scattered around the fleet. Then a stroke of luck comes: a chance to pursue an American ship that has been harrassing British whalers in the south seas. It is enough to keep the Surprise and her crew going a bit longer…but it is almost the last good luck Aubrey sees in this commission.

Anyone who has read the series this far must care deeply for Jack, and for his dear friend Stephen Maturin, and many of the famliar faces in his crew. Nevertheless, it is hard not to enjoy their bad luck, when it affords us such a colorful adventure at sea. On the other hand, the ocean starts to seem awfully big, and the Surprise dangerously small upon it, in the series of disasters, setbacks, calms, maroonings, and deadly crimes that take place within these pages.

Consider what this tale has to offer: the tragedy of an adulterous couple, and the woman’s homicidal husband…men rescued from certain drowning by a ship full of man-hating, female savages…not one, but two incidents of being hopelessly stranded on a desert isle…a bitterly intense, cold war when enemy is cast down on the same shore…delicate intelligence work, life-or-death medical miracles, navigational wonders, beauteous creatures of the deep, humor, suspense, wordplay, masterful characterization, and a rich background of history, culture, and nautical precision…Penguins at the equator! Storms in the tropics! Storms in the Antarctic! Deadly sharks! The early stages of substance abuse!

Mature audiences are invited to experience all this and more, in this tenth part of O’Brian’s sprawling great novel about an early 19th century British naval hero and his scientific friend. I guarantee you will be quite surprised by this book, whether you have seen the film or not – particularly surprised by how exciting a naval novel can be, even without a single flow-blown, yardarm-to-yardarm battle!