Written by Patrick O’Brian
Published by W.W. Norton
Review by Scott Archer Jones
The Unknown Shore is the predecessor volume to the Aubrey/Maturin books that dominated O’Brian’s career, and is a lively book by a young author first working out his voice and his big themes.
The aficionado of O’Brian’s books (that focused on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars) will absolutely wallow in the details of this story, seeing characters, quirks, details, and ideas that will be resorted and reused in the coming series. For instance, a variation on Stephen Maturin named Tobias Barrow, though decidedly English, takes his place as the second protagonist – a genius of a naturalist whose friends describe him as a socially inept “ugly cove.”
From an author’s perspective, O’Brian is somewhat loose with point of view, and continues the turn-of-the-last-century, Henry-Jamesian preference of narration over action for perhaps half the book. Some will find this old-fashionedly charming and some will find it weak. The most compelling chunks of the novel appear as action based sequences spiced by dialogue. There is a remarkable and unbelievable ability for the characters to become fluent first in Indian, then in Spanish, and last in French – not just in pidgin, but in at a level of subtle comprehension. Finally, O’Brian’s syntax is occasionally so clotted that you have to re-read a sentence three times – he should have “killed his darlings.”
The novel is well worth reading on its own as a stand-alone. In the beginning the book has a charming tongue-in-cheek attitude towards its characters, and then shifts into dedicated drama written in a mature powerful voice. During the chapters of hardship and deprivation, starvation and debasement, O’Brain made me so hungry I was forced to get up three times and make toast. The book is strongest from midpoint until two chapters from the end, then falls into a sense of epilogue. In spite of the unevenness, The Unknown Shore is well worth reading, even if you are not acquainted with the grown-up O’Brian – it is quite superior to many of the books in the genre, including most of the Hornblower novels.
Scott Archer Jones is currently living and working on his fifth novel in northern New Mexico, after stints in the Netherlands, Scotland and Norway plus less exotic locations. He’s worked for a power company, grocers, a lumberyard, an energy company (for a very long time), and a winery.
A new writer, he has been a finalist but not a winner too many times, published in enough places to get cocky, been rejected enough to be humbled. He is on the masthead at the Prague Review.
Scott cuts all his own firewood, lives a mile from his nearest neighbor and writes grant applications for the community. He is the Treasurer of Shuter Library of Angel Fire, a private 501.C3, and desperately needs your money to keep the doors open.