Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion
Silver: Return to Treasure Island
Jonathan Cape, Hardback 2012
404 pp; ISBN 978-0-224-091190, £12.99
It takes a plucky pioneer to create an original and worthy sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s much-loved adventure story Treasure Island, but Andrew Motion proves more than capable of this imaginative retelling. His novel, Silver, sees Jim Hawkin’s son, Jim, join forces with Natty, daughter of the infamous one-legged buccaneer, Long John Silver, on a quest to discover the island’s remaining treasure: ‘the beautiful bar silver’. Jim and Natty (disguised as a young boy called Nat) board the Silver Nightingale, motley crew in tow, for what we assume will be a swashbuckling tale full of unexpected twists and turns. But despite its obvious origins and echoes, the narrative that unfolds is a dark, sophisticated, and philosophically rich story that delights in different ways from its literary predecessor. ‘We shall not have the same experience as our fathers,’ Natty tells Jim as they embark on their journey, which is a warning as much for the benefit of the reader as it is for Jim. And, sure enough, Motion’s story succeeds because it undermines our narrative expectations: we know how adventure stories should develop (it is almost impossible to read the novel without being reminded of the indelible stamp Treasure Island has left on our collective imagination), but we are also struck by the feeling that we are sailing in deeper, stranger waters.
Motion is not the first writer to produce a continuation of Stevenson’s story, and it seems fitting that Treasure Island, a text that pilfers tropes and ideas from a range of other works, should provide inspiration for fresh pieces of fiction. But Motion shrewdly consigns Stevenson’s original characters to the peripheries of his story, which allows him greater scope to make the novel much more than a clever piece of metafiction. Jim Hawkins senior, the once brave, daring teenager, becomes an unhappy, irritable old man, drunkenly reliving his boyhood adventures and speculating on the whereabouts of John Silver, who, it transpires, renounced his roughish ways and returned to England after escaping from the Hispaniola with a share of the loot at the end of Stevenson’s book. The now respectable ‘Mr Silver’ lives in a ship-like house made of ‘planks, spars, logs, branches, roots, pieces of barrel, and every other sort of wooden material the river happened to have carried within reach’. In a wonderfully vivid chapter entitled ‘I Meet a Ghost’, Jim is brought before his father’s old adversary (now an elderly, emaciated blind man) and squirms helplessly as Mr Silver runs his talon-like fingers over Jim’s face. Long John’s spectral presence in the book frustrates Natty’s and Jim’s attempts to escape their fathers’ shared history. The word ‘Silver’ is added to the ship’s name ‘to manifest her owner, and to make him almost a member of the crew.’ When Natty is taken prisoner by the tyrannical pirates of the island and is left to wallow in a state of delirium, images of her father bombard her consciousness. ‘My father is everywhere. Everywhere we go, we follow him’, she eventually concedes.
It is not only Motion’s intelligent use of Stevenson’s story that makes Silver such a worthwhile read. His central characters, Jim and Natty, are curiously complex. Jim narrates the story from a later stage of his life and is prone to deep introspection, often mulling over his past thoughts, feelings and actions with the benefit of hindsight. His weary regrets and wistful reflections create a sense of melancholia that, like the mist and clouds that gather over the island in the latter stages of the novel, hangs heavy over every chapter. When the ship becomes embroiled in a devastating hurricane as it sets sail for its return to England, Jim is forced to face his impending death. He remarks:
Instead of congratulating myself on how well I had completed the work begun by my father, or on how I had gained wisdom through suffering, or on how I had learned a lesson in love, I thought instead about the persistence of evil, and the thousand ways in which we are likely to be disappointed when we look for a better world.
A feeling of existential sadness permeates Jim’s narrative, and this sadness also laces the numerous songs that are sung at various points by nearly all of the characters. Some may criticise the novel’s philosophical bent; for many readers, the death-defying antics of light-hearted pirate tales are attractive and enthralling precisely because they less frequently tackle big, serious questions about life. But Motion does not let us escape into such conventional fantasies so easily. Instead, the reader, like Jim, is forced to accept the fact that life’s adventures invariably bring us closer to our death. The intensity of Jim’s narration coupled with his grim descriptions of the exploitation and slavery on the island gives this story a depth and profundity not often witnessed in novels of this genre. In some ways, Motion’s Silver is reminiscent of J. M. Coetzee’s Foe: it reinvents a classic story with such skill it is difficult to see the original in the same light again.
Such melancholia is alleviated at times by humour, however. We learn that Ben Gunn, the half-mad marooned pirate from Stevenson’s story, was rendered destitute once more, after having spent his share of the coffers in the space of nineteen days. When Jim first meets Natty, he intuitively glances at her legs to check that ‘she had not inherited [her father’s] disadvantage.’ In a later chapter, we are introduced to the character of Mr Stevenson, an ‘angular Scotsman’ who keeps watch in the ship’s crow’s-nest. It is a comic irony, we are reminded, that most sailors can’t swim, and when the ship runs aground, Mr Stevenson eventually falls into the waves tightly clutching a bar of silver to ‘accelerate his journey to the bottom of the sea.’ In a paradoxical way, these amusing details add to the story’s pathos and serve to inflect some the more disturbing passages in the book.
Unlike Stevenson’s pacey prose, Motion’s writing is characterised by a soft, fluid lyricism. Just before Natty arrives and convinces Jim to steal his father’s map, he recalls looking out at the Thames from his bedroom window:
The towpath was deserted, patched by a large square of yellow light falling from the taproom window. The marshes all around had been simplified by moonlight into an arrangement of powdery grey and greens. The river seemed a richer kind of nothing – a gigantic ingot of solid silver, except that now and again it crinkled when a log rolled silently past, or a dimple appeared and then vanished.
The sheer quality and beauty of the writing makes this novel such an addictive read and delightful flourishes such as this punctuate the text throughout. Moreover, Motion deftly employs images of water, drowning and liquefaction for a variety of purposes. Sometimes water is explicitly associated with death. When Jim spies the execution of a terrified slave, he describes how ‘The blade sliced through the victim’s neck as if it were made of water.’ At other times, water becomes a broader metaphor for Jim’s fluid, formless subjectivity. It is even occasionally used as a way of expressing metaphysical truth. In the wake of the death of Jordan Hands, the nephew of Israel Hands, the man Jim’s father sent to a watery grave in Treasure Island, Jim observes: ‘Rolling waves eradicate everything written on them, whether it is the wake of a ship, or the passage of the wind, or a log, or a bottle – or a man. After every kind of interruption, water wants nothing more than to be its simple self again.’ If Stevenson’s story was originally conceived as a story for teenage boys, Silver is designed for grown-up lovers of literature who will relish Motion’s superior crafting of language.
Charlotte Keys teaches English at Royal Holloway and is the founding editor of Exegesis, an academic e-journal. She is currently in the process of completing her PhD thesis on Shakespeare and existentialist philosophy.