Book of a lifetime

The Sea Hawk, Rafael Sabatini
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The Independent Culture

When I was a kid I thought everyone must learn to read twice. Once for children's books; another for grown-ups'. It would be like losing my milk teeth. One day I would put down The Secret Garden, the book-fairy would leave a coin under my pillow, and suddenly I'd be devouring Death in Venice. I knew about grown-ups' books. Fear of Flying lay half-read in our downstairs toilet. The World According to Garp and Midnight's Children accompanied us on years of beach holidays. But though I read the titles, it never occurred to me that I could actually read whole books. In any case, I was terrified. Dad once let fall that adult books were about things children didn't like. Since Ratty and Moley's trip into the Wild Wood had already left me prostrate with fear, a single paragraph of Catch-22 might shatter my slumbers for decades.

So when Dad handed me an adult book, I was wary. It was beaten and sombre, with mottled papers and a torn dust-jacket. It was called The Sea Hawk, an unpromising blend of the maritime and ornithological. But I'd read through everything else I owned.

"Sir Oliver Tressilian sat at his ease in the lofty dining-room of the handsome house of Penarrow," ran the opening line. My interest stirred. I suspected that even as Sir Oliver relaxed, that handsome house might well be under attack. Sure enough, Sir Oliver was soon betrayed by a brother of low character, forsaken by his beloved Rosamund, kidnapped by Muslim corsairs and sold into white slavery. A tale of heroic misadventure followed, spiriting me from 16th-century Cornwall to the spicy shores of North Africa. Sabatini's epithets outstripped anything in children's fiction: here were quarrelsome, volcanic humours, swarthy brows and deep Herculean torsos.

Needless to say, Sir Oliver's dauntless chivalry was no more easily subdued than Sabatini's swashbuckling prose. Sir Oliver reinvented himself as Sakr-el Bahr, an Algerian warlord stretched "upon a cloak of woven camel-hair amid luxuriating fern and samphire". Not even Mr Toad had those. These were new worlds. Sakr-el-Bahr revenged his betrayers with the ferocity of Islam, yet with a sporting decency befitting an away match. When Sakr purchases Rosamund as his slave she rebukes him, "You beast!", and his vengeance is checked. While other boarding-school books were covert novels of empire, Sabatini's martial Islamic romance really was a boarding school-story.

The Sea Hawk was written in 1915, when Englishness and its fate in a world at war seemed especially uncertain. In Australia, 70 years later, Sir Oliver Tressilian's past and Sabatini's present were equally antique to me. But The Sea Hawk was still a revelation: at last I was reading a grown-ups' and a children's book at the same time.

Sophie Gee's novel 'The Scandal of the Season' is published by Chatto & Windus