It was the opening session of 2012 for me and I was full of the joys of Charlotte Square. Then Andrew Motion turns all existential, predicting humankind’s demise within the next 200 years. What brought on this gloom? The research into his next book which led him to the realities concerning the extinction of the bison in America. I’m sorry, he said, but that’s what I believe.
So what’s the point of literature?, asked chairperson Sarah Crown, in a moment of brilliance, pulling us right back to the purpose of the afternoon. To remember what we have lost, to celebrate what we have and to warn us about the dangers of the future, replied Motion.
One could add to eat, drink and have fun for in 200 years we die because that is what Motion does in Silver, his sequel to Treasure Island, a novel he thought about for 20 years before writing. He didn’t want to fall into the perils of the failed sequel, he said, by staying too close to the original and thus putting himself in competition with the original, a competition he was bound to lose. For this reason he moved the story forward a generation into a post French revolution world where sensibilities are much changed and Long John Silver is a decrepit old husk who sends his daughter Nattie on a voyage with Jim Hawkins II (the son of Stevenson’s Jim) to find the silver that was left behind.
This change allows Motion to retain many elements of the original (the treasure hunt), to play with others (Long John Silver’s parrot has died but there is a new bird named Spot, the open ending
– a literal cliffhanger) and to insert an entirely new political subplot (slavery). He pays homage to Stevenson, though at the same time ensuring that this sequel remains his own. He gives Stevenson a cameo role, as the lookout. For most of the voyage the character inhabits the crow’s nest of the ship, retaining an overview of proceedings. But once the ship approached the island, Mr Stevenson is brought down on deck. The underlying message, Motion said, is that this is my island, not Stevenson’s.
The big question: Is the book any good?
It is a good read, which stands up well even when read immediately after a revelatory first (!) reading of Treasure Island. The prose is more descriptive and reflective than the original – an indicator of Jim Hawkins II and, therefore, Motion’s interest in the natural world. Jim Hawkins II, c’est moi, said Motion. The ending though is a disappointment, just like the EIBF event which saw Motion rushing off to catch a train rather than stay for a book signing. (Boo) Surely an author can be kinder to his characters (and audience) than that? I won’t give away the ending of the novel here, though Motion did at his event. Suffice to say it takes us right back to his gloomy predictions for mankind. Literal cliffhanger aside (I like that touch), I deducted a full star from my final rating.