Books: Bound for hell, ev'ry one of us

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The Requiem Shark

by Nicholas Griffin

Little, Brown pounds 16.99

The Golden Age of Piracy coincided with the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. The treaty brought peace to England, France and Spain: its other, possibly unforeseen, result was the forced redundancy of 40,000 highly trained seamen, many of whom turned their hand to seaway robbery.

One of these men, Phineas Bunch, is Nicholas Griffin's forebear and a treacherous protagonist of his first dextrously handled and enthusiastically researched novel. Griffin writes like a Boys' Own dream - battles, storms, and doomed young love (sufficiently shortlived so as not to intrude on the macho thrust of the plot) are his favourite set pieces, and will appeal to fans of Robert Louis Stevenson and Errol Flynn. But Griffin's real achievement lies in his convincing re-creation of the short, brutish lives of the motley crew of an 18th-century pirates' ship.

Another, more notorious, real-life figure, Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts, is the novel's anti-hero, and it is a contemporary account of his 1719- 1722 voyage around the Caribbean and West African seas that forms the basis of Griffin's story. Roberts is revealed as a brilliantly intuitive navigator with democratic pretensions; every man on board his ship receives one vote, and takes his fair share of the booty.

Griffin ingeniously brings a literary element on board the Fortune in the shape of a press-ganged fiddler-cum-scholar, William Williams, whom Roberts appoints as the ship's chronicler. It is through Williams's eyes that the story unfolds. His forced apprenticeship to Roberts leads him to evolve from a green, book-loving land-lubber to seasoned man of the sea. He learns to negotiate the ends of the known world, and records savage conflicts and liaisons with itinerant prostitutes, slavetraders and merchants.

Legend, anecdote and delusion are skilfully conflated to give Griffin's story its impetus: the fabled Juliette, heaving with gold, is Roberts's quarry, and he fills his men's heads with dreams of its riches; a Bible- reading ex-slave, aptly named Innocent, locates Christ's representative on sea in the ship's double-dealing captain.

Every man is for himself and living under an illusion, except the introspective Williams: "We are bound for hell," he writes in his journal. "Ev'ry one of us." Which brings us, and Griffin, to the question of guilt. For the most part of this novel, Griffin revels in an anarchically violent free- for-all in which Williams is, as the ship's conscience, merely complicit. Miscreants (ie, those who murder, steal or sodomise in their own time) are dispatched by Roberts with terrifying efficiency.

Williams is appalled but at the same time voyeuristically ensnared by this extreme version of the masculine ethic. So when the British Navy eventually catches up with Roberts, and justice is meted out, Williams is seen to be as morally reprehensible as the next man.

However, the story's moral tensions are left unresolved, despite some clever twists. Where Griffin falls down is in not supplying the emblematic Williams with sufficient psychological depth. The fiddler's first-person account is scattered at random points throughout the narrative but reveals little more than Griffin's inability to convert his expert use of maritime vocabulary into genuinely reflective prose that, in turn, would make Williams's inner journey meaningful.

But then Griffin deals best with action, and excels at describing the physical reality of disease, death and sex with pox-ridden whores. His gripping accounts of the disastrous effects of cannonball injuries and of the ship's inexpert surgeon as he severs limbs with a hacksaw while slugging at a bottle of rum will cause many a reader to blanch. The atmosphere of lawlessness and the period detail are faultlessly rendered - the only thing missing is an authentic communication of these characters' inner lives.