There are two kinds of classic novels. One is the kind you’re hit over the head with in high school, (or forced to read it a few years too early, if you went to an aggressively academic school), and as an adult, if you remember the book at all, you don’t do so with fondness. (Looking at you, Dickens and Hemingway.) Then there are classic novels like Treasure Island, which have stuck around because they are just that good. If you haven’t read Treasure Island, you should. Everything you think you know about pirates comes from this book. Parrot on the shoulder? Treasure Island. Exaggerated Rs? Treasure Island. X marks the spot? Treasure Island. Peg legged captain? Treasure Island. If you didn’t read this book in school, it’s probably for the same reason you only ate over-boiled vegetables—because the adults in your life thought that anything enjoyable couldn’t possibly be good for you. Treasure Island has stood the test of time because it’s an amazing adventure story with a host of an unforgettable cast of characters.
Andrew Motion apparently likes Treasure Island too, because he wrote an entire novel of fanfiction about it. Yes, if you write a story using other people’s characters without their permission, it’s fanfiction. But he does a good job of it. Through young Jim Hawkins, he manages to capture the voice and the flavor of the original book quite well.
Jim has grown up with stories of his father’s adventures his entire life, and although he enjoys the relative affluence his father’s share of the treasure has afforded his own childhood, he feels overshadowed by his relatively safe and domesticated life. The tumultuous and barbaric adventures of his father’s time are not possible in Jim’s own time … or so he thinks.
All of this changes when a mysterious young stranger bids Jim to steal Jim’s father’s most precious belonging: the famed treasure map. Jim loves his father, and doesn’t want to betray him, but the lure of adventure is even stronger. With the financial backing of Long John Silver, and a crew of doughty men, Jim and Nat set out on a quest to recover the rest of the silver, which was left with the maroons on Treasure Island.
Motion, as I said before, manages to capture that flowery, overly descriptive voice that writers used to show off their chops back in the nineteenth century, but he (fortunately) didn’t also pepper it with excessive contemporary references. So you get the poetic description of what the jungle on the island looked like, but you don’t have to hit wikipedia every other sentence to look up obscure figures from Greek mythology.
The storytelling is a lot simpler than the original story, with fewer defections and mutinies and people switching sides. This Jim isn’t a youth adrift in a hostile sea so much as a young but loyal member of a ship’s crew. I was a little disappointed by a couple of things. One, Jim’s status among the crew goes up too much after the captain dies. I saw what Motion was doing there, it just felt a little forced, like it needed a few more chapters to develop. Two, I was disappointed with the ending. The description of the reef and the cliffs confused me. I had to reread it a few times, and even so, I’m not sure I understood how the reef and cliffs stood in relation to one another, so I didn’t quite figure out how Jim got away. Also, the very ending paragraph was vague enough to make me wonder if I was reading it correctly, or if this was a lead-in to a sequel. I like endings that are ends.
Whereas I think the target audience of Treasure Island was young boys who longed for adventure, I think the target audience for this book is people who loved Treasure Island and were sad when the story ended. Whereas in the 19th century, this was a great example of a much-beloved trope (naval yarns and the deserted island trope) modern youths may prefer something a little more accessible. I recommend this for people who liked Treasure Island and were sad when it ended.