Rock­ing the boat

A new spin on the short, busy life of Fletcher Chris­tian.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS&CULTURE - By RUS­SELL BAIL­LIE

Af­ter an am­bi­tious tril­ogy of nov­els that lifted Cap­tain James Cook’s pow­dered wig and pon­dered the bril­liant nau­ti­cal mind be­neath, Graeme Lay has turned his sights on another 19th-cen­tury sea­farer.

This time, the Pa­cific-fo­cused Auck­land au­thor is in much less un­charted wa­ters. His en­ter­tain­ing if oc­ca­sion­ally stodgy novel Fletcher of the Bounty adds to a vast pile of mutiny chron­i­cles. That in­cludes Anne Sal­mond’s Wil­liam Bligh in the South Seas from 2011, which Lay cites in his re­search ma­te­rial.

But it’s Fletcher Chris­tian’s short, busy life that his book fol­lows from Cum­brian boy­hood to the crum­bling par­adise of Pit­cairn.

Lay spends a long time es­tab­lish­ing the pre-Bounty mas­ter and ap­pren­tice re­la­tion­ship of Bligh and Chris­tian. And there is much tele­graph­ing of the younger man’s at­tributes. He stands up to bul­lies: he saves school­mate Wil­liam Wordsworth – yes, the very one – from a beat­ing. How po­etic. When it comes to the wom­en­folk, he can’t seem to keep it in his breeches.

Less sexy in the book’s first half are its char­ac­ters’ fact-crammed con­ver­sa­tions and cor­re­spon­dence. The ex­po­si­tion can make for starchy read­ing. The en­ergy picks up, though, as the saga starts swerv­ing around the South Seas, Chris­tian falls for Tahi­tian woman Mau­atua and Bligh, here a para­noiac, starts be­hav­ing er­rat­i­cally. Lay imag­ines a fresh Bligh of­fence that pushes Chris­tian to re­volt.

It all of­fers plenty to in­spire another

Bounty screen saga. Cin­e­matic mo­ments abound, whether it’s Mau­atua do­ing a

Kate Winslet on the Bounty’s prow or its hi­lar­i­ously grim clos­ing im­age. Episodes like those show that for all the his­toric rigour, Lay has had some fun giv­ing this an­cient mariner a new spin.

FLETCHER OF THE BOUNTY: A Novel, by Graeme Lay (Fourth Es­tate, $36.99)

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