"Silver, Return to Treasure Island" is a wonderful tale well-told, in the mode of old-fashioned story-telling. I can't remember when I turned the pages of a book with such anticipation.
Andrew Motion, the former British Poet Laureate, has updated the original Robert Louis Stevenson story with a tale that is nearly as good as the first. Motion's story takes place around 1820, 40 years after the first adventure, and, isn't far behind Stevenson in quality, either.
By the way, this is not the first time that Andrew Motion has reimagined the past through fiction. A decade ago Motion wrote "Wainright the Poisoner," a contrived autobiography of Thomas Wainright, a Romantic period artist and criminal, as well as "The Invention of Dr. Cake," wherein John Keats does not die of pneumonia but returns to England as a physician.
So, "The Return to Treasure Island" complements Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver's adventures, long back in England with their shares of gold with a jarring, murkier tale. For those who never read Stevenson's original "Treasure Island," Motion gives it new life by repeating the necessary details so that readers new to the story can follow his sequel.
Now it is young Jim, Jim Hawkins' son, who is prompted to re-create his father's trip by Natty, Long John Silver's daughter. Of course it is Long John Silver, now barely alive but still sinister, who is behind getting Natty to convince Jim to steal his father's map, something he deeply regrets, as a guide for the second journey.
Silver has arranged a ship, the Nightingale, along with Captain Beamish, an excellent seaman who would become a friend and crew to take the young people back to Treasure Island. Young Jim and Natty's assignment is to use the map with Captain Beamish's help, to get what treasure remains and bring it back to Long John. Natty makes the voyage with Jim, disguised as a young boy, Nat. As a matter of fact, Motion gives RLS, Stevenson, a cameo role in the novel, making him the night watchman who falls asleep in the crow's nest of the Nightingale on page 202.
The titles of the chapter headings are sparse in their description, like the original: "The Story of My Life," "My Visitor," "I Meet a Ghost," "Downriver," "Reading the Map" and so on. They prompt you to think that you are going to enjoy the thrills of "Treasure" all over again, this time with the descendants of the original characters leading the way.
Sample a taste of Motion's fine writing. When young Jim and Nat make their way onto Treasure Island from the Nightingale, he observes,
"This was the first time for six or seven weeks that I had stepped onto dry land – if you can call it land when the ground bubbles, and wobbles, and shows an insatiable desire to take the book off a foot …"
"… In several places the vegetation was so densely woven together we had to crawl … Natty showed such adeptness in making our path that she became the leader … To see her slither like an eel through tangled roots, and spring like a cat across the barriers of fallen trees, and worry like a dog at the knots of branches, made me think she must be a compendium of God's creatures."
This second journey is more complicated than the first. The new arrivals must decide to look only for the silver and get away, or to help slaves they come upon who are under siege by three insatiable, blood-lusting pirates left behind at the end of the first journey to the island.
There is the headman, Smirke; and there is Stone, the executioner of non-compliant slaves. And there is the headman's lackey, Jinks. These three are "so absolutely depraved, they kept the whole community in a state of passive terror." The slaves are late arrivals to the island from a storm-tossed ship.
"Silver, Return To Treasure Island" has more bite and viciousness, as well as a ferocity of destruction that Stevenson's original did not have. Toward the end, as a sadder, crew- depleted ship sails toward England with its treasure, a hurricane comes upon them.
The destruction that follows leads Jim to wonder if there is a persistence of evil "… and the thousand ways in which we are likely to be disappointed when we look for a better world."
You must read to the end to see what happens to young Jim and Natty.
"Silver" is quality work with equal portions of "friendship, loyalty, and pirates" written by a master conjurer of words and phrases.
Michael D. Langan is a veteran News reviewer of British fiction.
Silver: Return to Treasure Island
By Sir Andrew Motion
Crown416 pages, $24