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Clarissa Oakes by Patrick O’Brian (1992) 256 p.

This is one of the most nautical novels yet from O’Brian – it begins already at sea, on the huge Pacific, with the Surprise only making landfall near the conclusion. The crux of the novel is the titular Clarissa, a stowaway convict from Sydney smuggled aboard by the midshipman Oakes. Seeking to offer her legal safety for the Surprise’s eventual return to England, Jack has the Reverend Martin marry her to Oakes. The matter isn’t settled, however, as Clarissa is a former whore (to use the parlance of the time) who’s also caught the eye of half the gunroom, and isn’t beyond indulging them; much of the novel revolves around the inevitable tensions and jealousies that then result among the ship’s officers.

The result of this is an unusually sombre novel. Perhaps I also felt that because, while it’s objectively one of his strengths, portraying the confined little universe of a ship and her company is not my favoured form of O’Brian’s writing. I prefer the adventure, the exoticism, the allure of foreign ports and distant lands; a little bit of battle and a lot of Stephen’s espionage. The Surprise in isolation, suspended in a void, is less appealing to me. There’s certainly a lot going on here personality-wise: we see Jack in a mostly previously unseen depression, what appears to be the deterioration of Martin and Maturin’s friendship, and plenty of introspection. But it was a rare Aubrey-Maturin novel which failed to engross me, and I’m glad to be moving on to the next, The Wine-Dark Sea.

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May 2021