The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian (1984) 312 p.

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This is the halfway point of the series, and the book from which the 2003 Peter Weir film adaptation takes most (but not nearly all) of its plot. HMS Surprise is dispatched from Gibraltar in pursuit of the USS Norfolk, which has been sent to harass British whalers in the South Pacific. (We are, at this point, well into what O’Brian calls his fictional 1812b, in which he spun out the year indefinitely to avail himself of its most interesting historical events). And so The Far Side of the World takes us all the way down past the coast of Brazil, around the Antarctic storms of Cape Horn, up past Chile and the Galapagos and out into the warm tropical waters of Polynesia.

It’s a great book, one of the best in the series, and possibly the only book that features no extended naval battles. Peter Weir’s film of course ends with a confrontation of gunpowder and steel, but what happens in the novel when Surprise finally tracks down her quarry is infinitely more interesting – I won’t give away precisely what it is, but suffice to say it’s a sort of character-driven pressure-cooker situation of steadily increasing tensions between two opposing groups, the kind of thing (among many other things) which makes me dearly wish HBO would commission a multi-million dollar TV series of these books.

There’s another tremendous setpiece which unfolds perfectly. Fishing from the rear window of Aubrey’s cabin one night, the typically clumsy Maturin topples into the water, and with a cry of “clap on to the cutter!” Jack dives in after him without a second thought. Maturin’s constant ability to find himself in the drink has been played for laughs so many times by now that it’s quite a shock as the scene progresses and the reader realises Jack and Stephen are in far more danger than first thought: the cutter is not being towed behind the ship after all, there is nothing to clap onto, and Jack’s cries for assistance are drowned out by the singing of the sailors on the deck.

He had set Stephen to float on his back, which he could do tolerably well when the sea was calm; but an unfortunate ripple, washing over his face just as he breathed in, sank him again; again he had to be brought up, and now Jack’s “Surprise ahoy,” coming at the full pitch of his powerful voice, had an edge of anxiety to it, for although the ship was not sailing fast, every minute she moved more than a hundred yards, and already her lights were dimming in the mist.

Hail after hail after hail, enough to startle the dead: but when she was no more than the blur of the planet earlier in the night he fell silent, and Stephen said, “I am extremely concerned, Jack, that my awkwardness should have brought you into such very grave danger.”

“Bless you,” said Jack, “it ain’t so very grave as all that. Killick is bound to come into the cabin in half an hour or so, and Mowett will put the ship about directly.”

But Killick turns in early, and as the weaker Stephen lapses into unconsciousness through the night while the two of them float alone in the terrifyingly enormous Pacific Ocean, Jack’s mathematical calculations of time and distance and drift and endurance lead him to a bleak conclusion. Aside from being engaging in itself, this scene is a wonderful demonstration of their friendship: Stephen’s awkwardness has in fact got them both killed, but this never crosses Jack’s consideration, never leads to any acrimony or recriminations, even privately. Instead, knowing that being adrift in the ocean is far more terrifying for his friend than for him, Jack never treats him with anything less than gentleness.

In the midst of his calculations he became aware that Stephen, lying there as stiff as a board, was becoming distressed. “Stephen,” he said, pushing him, for Stephen’s head was thrown back so far that he could not easily hear, “Stephen, turn over, put your arms round my neck, and we will swim for a little.” Then as he felt Stephen’s feet on the back of his legs, “You have not kicked off your shoes. Do not you know you must kick off your shoes? What a fellow you are, Stephen.”

And cleverly – as in The Fortune of War, when Stephen and Jack’s different strengths play off each other as they find themselves stranded alone in Boston – it’s Stephen’s skills as a naturalist and anthropologist which come in to play when the two men are rescued by a Polynesian vessel crewed entirely by women, and it slowly becomes clear to Stephen in particular that this is not a society in which men will be welcomed; indeed, it’s only his memory of a very specific Polynesian word which saves Jack from an unpleasant fate.

Overall, one of the very finest entries in the series. I usually only read a few of these per year, but just burned through The Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbour and The Far Side of the World in a single month while travelling, so I’ll have to back off and pace myself again.