Peter Campbell

  • The Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian
    Collins, 284 pp, £10.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 241 12543 X
  • Klara by Hugh Thomas
    Hamish Hamilton, 347 pp, £12.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 241 12527 8
  • From Rockaway by Jill Eisenstadt
    Penguin, 214 pp, £3.99, September 1988, ISBN 0 14 010347 3
  • The High Road by Edna O’Brien
    Weidenfeld, 180 pp, £10.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 297 79493 0
  • Loving and Giving by Molly Keane
    Deutsch, 226 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 223 98346 2
  • Tracks by Louise Erdrich
    Hamish Hamilton, 226 pp, £11.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 241 12543 X

I never knew – I’m not sure I’m pleased to know – that a gull fed an Alka Seltzer sandwich will explode. That, along with a lot of information about what is done to a lifeguard who loses his man, comes in From Rockaway. The Letter of Marque has an account of 18th-century opium dosages. Tracks is informative about the cultural anthropology of the American Indian. Klara incorporates material for a historical essay about post-war Vienna. Facts give verisimilitude, but tend to diminish status. Detail can get the fraudulent a long way, as is proved by true stories of con men and their patter; and that may be one reason why novels of expertise, where subject-matter determines genres, are suspect.

Even so, some of the best things in the books noticed here are built within, and could not easily have been written outside, the conventions of ‘lower’ genres. The best of the others use the kind of precise detail typical of these genres to give their stories substance. Now that it is uncommon to have direct experience of being, or having, a servant, or of being part of a tribal unit larger than, say, a university department, or a member of a family with dynastic ramifications, an exotic social entity – a ship’s crew, a fragment of Indian tribe – allows kinds of complexity to develop which novels of middle-class life exclude. Louise Erdrich’s knowledge of the Chippewa Nation is coupled with a gift for characterisation which can make strange loves, conflicts and rages seem native to the realistic novel. One is also grateful for Jill Eisenstadt’s more straightforward ability to use smart writing to make a teen plot seem a true account of the place she grew up in. Patrick O’Brian’s stories of Napoleonic sea war have a vivacity which Hugh Thomas’s more fitfully imaginative book lacks, but both have virtues which come directly from the fact that the substantial historical scaffolds which they have erected give their players room to move.

The Letter of Marque opens with Jack Aubrey dismissed the service after a conviction for rigging the Stock Market – a crime of which he was innocent. He is set up as master of a private man-of-war by his newly rich friend, Maturin, a Naval physician who also serves the Admiralty as a secret agent, but the loyalty of comrades cannot alleviate the gloom caused by his removal from the Captains’ List.

An engagement with an enemy national ship of equal force might help, and intelligence of the imminent departure of a French frigate gives Aubrey an opportunity for such a meeting. He leads a landing party which takes her from her moorings; wounded and interestingly pale, he returns the hero. His friends’ efforts on his behalf require that he ask for a pardon. He refuses, taking the line that this would be to admit guilt. His father, a general of erratic and dissolute habits and radical opinions, dies; a cousin puts Jack in the way of a seat in Parliament, and with this added influence his reinstatement on the Navy List is promised.

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