A. N. Wilson (Atlantic Books, £16.99)
capt cook crossed the antarctic circle in the 1770s in Resolution—and resolution was truly needed, given the arduous conditions that sometimes defied even cook’s careful planning. Resolution the book is based on the diaries of the young George Forster, a German whose obdurate, polymathic father reinhold replaced Joseph banks as the expedition’s scientist after banks’s demands for a luxurious cabin had been rejected.
For George, entering manhood on a ship that spent several years away from civilisation added to the ordeal; while cook took great pains to ensure the health of his crew, George’s later attractiveness to the opposite sex was not improved by having teeth lost from scurvy. the certainties of his lutheran father are less endearing—but very funny.
the story swings between George’s time at sea, his later, difficult marriage and his last years, in which he found himself enmeshed in the French revolution. all is vividly imagined and the reader follows his adventures breathlessly. Success as an author and man of science was attended with personal disasters that win our sympathy. the conditions on board Resolution are described compellingly—as is the bacchanalian behaviour of the crew when the ship anchored in the South Seas (George, for the most part, stuck to his task of drawing the botanical discoveries being made by his father).
cook is stern and uncommunicative, but as much a hero as he would have been to Boys’ Own. as with a. n. Wilson’s other novels, Resolution could be read for the historical background as well as the story. occasionally, the biographer gets the better of the novelist and we read more than we strictly need to know about some of the byways of the Enlightenment—although some may find that this adds to the stature of what is an epic book. Clive Aslet