Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty by Greg Dening, Canto pounds 7.99. Dening comes at the story of the Bounty with gusto and authority, displaying a deep and sympathetic knowledge of life in the Georgian Royal Navy: flogging, shipboard medicine, diet, the equivocal role of midshipmen, 'skylarking', 'yarning'. He is also excellent on the group dynamics and culture-clashes involved, the English public's reaction to the mutiny and the process whereby a small event was inflated into a world-class myth. But what sticks in the mind is the reconstruction of Bligh, Christian and the rest as if they were characters in a classical tragedy.
The Dork of Cork by Chet Raymo, Abacus pounds 6.99. So Dublin-dazzled is Ireland that a novel about the second city is an event. This one tells of a sexy young Frenchwoman stowaway in a homeward-bound US troopship who is put ashore in Cork, and stays there. Conceived on the ship, her son (the Dork) is a dwarf. He's as randy as his Ma but, because of his deformity, remains a virgin. Then he becomes a celebrity author and his sexual outlook dramatically improves. Chet Raymo - a professor of physics - pours a light soup of learning over the parallel stories of mother and son: the power of beauty, sex and social morality, the machinery of the universe, the puzzle of genetics. It is an agreeable and funny novel, although not as profound as it thinks it is.
Eating Children by Jill Tweedie, Penguin pounds 6.99. Tweedie's straitlaced father (an airline pilot) and her mother (brought up exotically in Constantinople, now a docile suburban wife) were so 'nice' that 'nice was what from the beginning I most passionately didn't want to be'. The struggle against niceness is related in witty and involving prose, whose energy never flags through school, calf love, disastrous marriage, emigration and (in a terrible climax) the loss of her children. Appended is a fragmentary sequel, Frightening People, begun before her death last year, and taking us up to her first gauche steps in journalism.
Beyond Siberia by Christina
Dodwell, Sceptre pounds 6.99. Most of us would not even know the name of Kamchatka if it wasn't on the Risk board. In fact, the Russian equivalent to Timbuctoo is 'a land of permafrost and volcanoes, of reindeer-herding tribes and descendants of gulag prisoners, of bears, sables, caviar and gold'. Dodwell is laid-back about the discomfort of her winter cross-country journey ('it was quite cold - minus 30 deg C') by dog-sledge, horseback and ski. When she returns in spring, having made contact with all the above-mentioned features (and the mafia and a frozen mammoth), prices in town have risen by 1,000 per cent.
Another Country by Karel Schoeman, trs David Schalkwyk, Picador pounds 6.99. Thirty years before the Boer War, Versluis, a rich but tubercular Dutchman, comes to Bloemfontein, hoping the dry air will cure him. Through Versluis's eyes Schoeman, with painstaking subtlety, introduces us to the townspeople. They still look to Holland for their values, diet and social structure while living in the middle of a vast, beautiful but meaningless veld in which, as one character says with depressive candour, 'There is only this empty space, this silence. It waits, but actually it expects nothing.' Whether to accept the emptiness or try to fill it is the existential theme of this quietly impressive novel.
Asta's Book by Barbara Vine, Penguin pounds 4.99. Drawing on the author's Danish ancestry, this is a tale of historical detection and family secrets. The narrator, Ann's grandmother, Asta, began a diary after migrating with her husband from Denmark to London in 1905, which she continued for 60 years. Ann, editing the diaries for publication, suspects that they contain clues to the questionable identity of Asta's third child Swanny and, behind that, the solution to a bloody murder. This will have fans of the Vine/Rendell novels purring.
The People in the Playground by Iona Opie, Oxford pounds 6.99. Opie is the ultimate connoisseur of the secret world of children's games, rituals, rhymes and jokes. Her previous books, written with her late husband, retained at least a slight academic flavour in delightfully charting all the variety of child lore. But this diary of eight terms in the playground of a Hampshire junior school is a work of pure pleasure, as she records (Gilbert White-like) the natural history of that 15-minute explosion of energy known as 'morning break'.
Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, Vintage pounds 5.99. Castaway sailor Gemmy Fairley staggers from the outback into a remote 19th-century Queensland colony after living for 16 years with aboriginals. The settlers are profoundly unsettled by his arrival and, through the ensuing crisis, all the suspicion, fear and cruelty of the Europeans in dealing with native Australians is exposed. In Malouf's creative hindsight (which won him a place on the '93 Booker shortlist), Gemmy is a mirage of what these colonists might have become - if only they'd learnt from the aboriginals instead of trying to wipe them out.
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