Master And Commander
Patrick O'Brian
Lipincott, 1969 (Reprinted by W. W. Norton)

Review by Niall Kelly

Although this is not a new novel, it certainly deserves a close look by any fan of nautical fiction. Anybody looking for a riveting, exciting, yet intelligent read could do no better than read one of Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories.

Master and Commander is the first in the great series of novels featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, and is probably one of the finest sea stories ever written. Master and Commander also introduces us to most of the characters who will feature throughout the series. As well as the two main protagonists we meet Preserved Killick the steward, Barret Bonden, Aubrey’s coxswain, as well as those sterling fellows Pullings, Mowet, and Babbington.

The story starts with the first meeting between Aubrey, a large, bluff, hearty naval officer, and Maturin, a small, dark physician. After a shaky start, they soon become friends, Aubrey is promoted to Master and Commander and given command of the sloop Sophie, and he persuades Maturin to join the ship as surgeon. O’Brian uses Maturin’s ignorance of all things nautical to describe the vessel to the reader. At one point he has Mowet, a master’s mate, show Maturin round the vessel, and any time things are getting a little technical, we have Maturin to ask the questions we would ask if only we could.

Mr. O’Brian has the knack of bringing the characters to life in a very few words. Very few words are wasted. Also, it is apparent that he has done a great deal of research into his subject, and has read deeply. The characters are not, as is so often the case, modern characters poured into a silly costume and given slightly anachronistic dialogue to speak. The reader feels that these are indeed eighteenth century seafarers brought to life. They are very much of their time. Whilst the language is, so far as I can judge, authentic, it does not sound strange coming from the mouths of Mr. O’Brian’s characters. I stand to be corrected, but so far people have not been able to spot any serious anachronisms in any of the books.

Another wonderful facet of Mr. O’Brian’s work is its humour. Some naval fiction can take itself terribly seriously, and can come across as rather po-faced. They are after all works of entertainment, and should be read as such. Whilst some of the later works put our heroes through some difficult times (Aubrey is in constant financial difficulty, and is at one stage placed in the stocks, and Maturin struggles with an addiction to laudanum), Master and Commander sees them in their youth, and enjoying themselves in the Mediterranean. Fate has given Jack Aubrey the one thing he was put on this Earth for - command of a warship, and the cherished friendship of Stephen Maturin. Maturin has been given the opportunity to explore the world, and carry out his work as an agent for Naval Intelligence in the company of a man who, whilst a complete booby ashore, is a tower of strength in his element, the sea.

If you have not already done so, get hold of a copy - you will not be disappointed. If you have already read the novel, take another look; you will appreciate it all the more the second time around.

Copyright © 1997 by Niall Kelly
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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