Monday, June 13, 2011

Bright and Distant Shores

Over the last two weeks, I have been reading 'Bright and Distant Shores' by Dominic Smith. It is a new novel by an Australian author, though he now lives in the USA, I understand. I won the book in a competition, from the publisher Allen and Unwin. With all the rain we have had in Sydney this long weekend, it was a perfect opportunity to sit and read, and do nothing else - so I finally finished this book.
   About a young man who gets commissioned to take a ship through the pacific islands to acquire weaponry and artefacts for a rich insurance magnate who wanted to add something special to the new building that he had built (briefly the world's tallest building).

   It is very well researched, and the writing flows very well. However, I'm left feeling unsatisfied. What was the plot? There wasn't really one - there were no peaks of the classic three-act structure. There was no building to a climax, and there was no resolution. Or if there were plot points, they were too subtle. Maybe Dominic Smith was aiming for a picaresque structure, since the novel mainly followed Owen Graves through his trip on the Lady Cullion. There were some episodes, though none of them really peaked. Owen's position moved from poor to rich, and from having itchy feet to happily settling into family life. I'm just not sure that I understand the point of the story, other than learning some historical information.
   Although the reader follows Own Graves through 500 pages of novel, his character still isn't clear. He's a rather flat character, and I'm not sure that his personality is strong enough that the reader would know what he would do in any particular situation. He's portrayed as a loner, but then he has some kind of natural authority amoung the sailors and other working-class men. He is a fairly poor negotiator, and yet the captain of the ship is convinced by his arguments on a number of occasions. He doesn't seem to fit in with anyone, and he also has some sense of protecting those weaker than him (although I consider him to be relatively weak himself). The reader doesn't get much insight through his thoughts, except about his fiancee, Adelaide.
   The redeeming character in this story is the native islander, Argus. Although there were some discrepancies in his character as well (he was very effeminate, though could lead a group of native warriors to kill the English pirates terrorising their island), he was far more substantial. I felt that Argus should have had a good ending, whilst I didn't care so much about the other characters who did get the good ending.
   Jethro, the 'foppish' son of the magnate who comes on the expedition, was unconvincing. He was always erratic, and I couldn't see his behaviour getting worse throughout the novel, except that the other characters seemed to be noticing that he was going crazy.
   Otherwise, the pace was good, the writing was very smooth and easy to read. There wasn't too much jumping around between character view points - whole chapters tended to be from a particular point of view. The historical information was also great - I enjoy learning something when I read, and I certainly did learn about Chicago in the 1890s, about seafaring in the same period, and also a fair bit information about how science was approached at the time.
   Should I start rating what I read? In this case, I would give this book three our of five stars.

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