Sunday, 28 August 2011

Treasure Island - rum fuelled fun

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (Cassell and Company: 1883). The tale of a boy who comes into possession of a treasure map, and is whisked away by the adults in his life to try and find the hidden riches. All is not as it seems though, and when double-crossing pirates lead the adventure down a deadly path, it’s up to Jim Hawkins to find a way out.

A few admissions first off this week.
My name’s Gavin, and (as much as I try not to be) I can be a little pretentious sometimes. I know, you're shocked, right?
It’s a trait that leads me towards books that I think might look good on my bookshelf rather than books I actually want to read. It’s a weakness that has seen me trudge through some pretty dull books, but it’s also a trait that has meant I’ve found enjoyment in some classics – the kind of books you’re always told everyone should have read before they die.
It was that occasional drift towards pretension that first led me to Robert Louis Stevenson. That and the fact that he’s maybe the most famous Scots writer that ever lived. It led me initially to Kidnapped, which I really (really) enjoyed. Then it led me to Catriona, which I really (really) did not enjoy.
Then I left Stevenson alone for a bit (which I’m sure he cares greatly about whilst he’s living it up upstairs). But whilst browsing through the paperbacks at the bookstall of the Gateshead Family Fun Day this year (a stall attentively staffed by your friend and mine “the” Andrew Walton), I found this. A rather beat up, weathered version of perhaps the greatest adventure book of all time.
And, after a good few months where I thought I’d shaken it off for good, my pretentious streak kicked back in. Here was a 60-odd year old copy of an indisputable classic (albeit a children’s classic), available for 50p.
I nabbed it. And have spent the past week or so reading it.
Treasure Island - the name immediately puts images of sundrenched wildernesses in your head, and makes you taste a little sea salt in the air. And I greatly enjoyed the Muppets version - I'm sure you did too. So it’s true to say I opened the first page already pretty predisposed to liking this.
And, to a large extent, it didn’t disappoint. The story is over a hundred years old, but it’s aged well. It was written for kids, so the pace and structure are faster moving than most hundred year old novels. The language is a little intricate in places, and the scene setting is often filled a little too much with the type of jargon that may have been understandable to people in an age when ships were everywhere, but that is a little less commonplace in the age of easyJet. But it doesn’t matter too much. I did get bogged down once or twice, but for the most part, the story skips along, and it’s very easy to skip along with it.
The dialogue is by far and a way the best part of Treasure Island. Long John Silver has a voice and a nature that’s incredibly seductive. The guy is one of the great characters. His reputation preceded him before I ever opened the book, and meeting the man first hand was no disappointment.
But it’s not a one man show. The other characters make sure the pages are filled with personality and colour. Yes, they’re all a little hammed up, but I love that. Silver is the witty lovable sea-dog through and through - Jim Hawkins is the principled young hero to the end - Doctor Livesey never wavers from being the resourceful paternal figure – Captain Smollett remains true to King and country in all circumstances. The entire make-up of these guys can be summed up in a few words each. It means that they rarely achieve any depth or real-world qualities, but it also means they are highly entertaining.
So how do you score Treasure Island? How do you give a classic book like this one an out-of-ten number? How do you judge a story that has earned a Muppet parody?
That’s how.
I enjoyed this. It was entertaining and I’m glad I’ve now read it. But I’ve read better books this year, or rather books that I’ve enjoyed more.
Next week, time to shake off the pretension and go for one of those books that everyone on the train seems to be reading.

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