Sequel shows its mettle
Followup to classic is a mast-read
This novel, by Britain’s former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, is a sequel to one of the greatest action adventure stories of all time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a book revered by other authors from Hemingway to Borges to Nabokov.
Everything that readers and movie audiences reflexively associate with the word “pirate” comes from that 1883 literary treasure. Johnny Depp was good as Captain Jack Sparrow, but what sears the memory is Robert Newton, with his deep West Country accent, feverishly devouring every scene of the great 1950 film as Captain Long John Silver.
The title of Motion’s sequel has a double meaning: it refers to Silver the pirate, and to his obsession with the bars of silver, the last half of Captain Flint’s booty, that were left behind on Treasure Island. The story itself is set a generation after the original adventure. It involves the blind and raving Silver, near death, sending his teenage daughter Natty to contact young Jim, the son of the first story’s hero, Jim Hawkins, now a drunken tavern owner. She is to convince Jim to steal his father’s map of Treasure Island, and then retrieve the silver bars.
This is fabulous material and Motion, who has called the original story “a cornerstone of my imagination,” cranks it for all it’s worth. The action scenes are terrific, the pulse pounds, and by providing Jim with a love interest in Natty, the story is deepened not only by their growing affection for each other but also by Natty’s decidedly ambiguous feelings toward her ferocious father.
Motion’s is an excellent novel. But it’s like writing a sequel to, say, Casablanca; beads of blood appear on the author’s brow as he tries to match or improve on perfection. This is an observation, not a criticism — the only thing wrong with Motion’s book is that it wasn’t written by Stevenson. Victorian novelist Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton said “Talent does what it can; genius does what it must.” Motion’s novel is very enjoyable on its own merits. But Stevenson was a genius, and the difference shows.
Stevenson’s greatest stories (like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) came to him in fever dreams and inspired not only a sprinting pen (he wrote the first 15 chapters of Treasure Island in 15 days) but great urgency and economy of style. This is what Motion’s sequel most lacks. His primary vocation is as a poet, after all, and he is soft and lush where Stevenson is spare to the point of being skeletal.
But Motion’s sequel is a great novel, exciting, beautifully written, well worth the price, and a great summer read. Silver by Andrew Motion (Doubleday Canada, 416 pages, $32)