The Commodore – Patrick O’Brian

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Somewhere in the pile of books that masquerades as this apartment, is an old paperback nineteenth-century seafaring volume describing the adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. I have yet to read it but I am going to ferret the thing out now that I’ve devoured The Commodore, a more recent Captain Jack adventure by Patrick O’Brian. The high seas in O’Brian’s multitudinous ouevre are thick with canvas–war ships, cutters, frigates, sloops–every one oufitted with guns, crewed by old hands and new, provisioned rather well and commanded by Jack Aubrey with his surgeon-spy-ardent naturalist friend Stephen Maturin along for the tumultuous ride.

You gotta love a duo that routes slavers, bests the French fleet, joneses for cheese toast and plays violin and cello duets between battles. The two have less luck on land–when they are home there are crises and cares to make life aboard seem like paradise, even while under fire. Aubrey takes a nasty spill from a horse that sidelines him and struggles with a raging case of jealousy about the attentions of a certain preacher toward his wife. Maturin loses track of his wife entirely–she has fled, apparently overwhelmed by the mute, asocial (autistic?) behavior of their daughter, a child born while her husband was on a years’ long journey in which the delights of South American fauna and the excellent medicinal effects of certain flora–namely coca leaves–preoccupied his attention.

Both men receive top-secret orders to race against time in service to the Crown–the main mission is preventing a French landing on the west coast of Ireland. But plenty of nefarious activity on shore contributes to a hurried departure–the good doctor may be arrested and dispatched, his fortune confiscated by a hated rival if he doesn’t take flight. The fine captain–now a Commodore with a very modest fleet–has a falling out with his beloved that isn’t resolved by the time he races to launch his fleet on a favorable tide. Meanwhile, Brigid, the small daughter, reveals she does speak Gaelic to a servant and warms to her strange father. He brings her aboard to deposit in a Spanish convent for safekeeping.

Wondrous creatures abound in the exotic ports of call on the latest route, as do terrible fevers and inauspicious tides. Shipboard life is as briney as you would expect and the language of 1800s seamen is pretty authentic so it takes real getting used to. But O’Brian invites you on deck and the voyage is amazing and irresistible. I can understand how devotees of this series claim they never want to leave Jack Aubrey’s world. You can feel the breeze pick up, hear the snap of the canvas and taste the salt. I can’t wait to ship out with The Yellow Admiral, the next book in the chronology and conveniently available at St. Agnes Library for those of us becalmed in the doldrums of a city summer, no sails in sight.

The Commodore (Vol. Book 17) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels)   Patrick O’Brian | W.W. Norton & Company   1996

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