Robert Louis Stevenson may have been intending to revisit Treasure Island himself someday; he left intriguing threads dangling in his most famous book. There's the perfidious Long John Silver, still on the loose; the "beautiful bar silver" hidden on the island; and, most haunting of all, the fate of the maroons, the pirates who were left behind. In taking up the threads, Andrew Motion returns us to the original pirate mythos, long before Johnny Depp picked up his eyeliner.
There's a leisurely expansiveness about his storytelling that's reminiscent of the best 19th-century fiction. Motion is never afraid to slow the action in order to create some glowing effect of atmosphere or setting. The book opens on the banks of the Thames downstream from Greenwich, where Jim Hawkins runs the Hispaniola Inn among the misty marshes, creeks and mudflats.
The first big surprise is that this story is not going to involve Jim much. Treasure Island is famously vague in both topography and dating; in contrast to Stevenson's hazy "17—" Silver is boldly set in 1802, and the Hawkins we'll be dealing with is Jim Jr.
"In those days I did my father's bidding," begins the novel in nicely buttonholing style. Jim has grown up with his father's tales of adventure, but loves his quiet life on the river, watching "large merchant ships starting their journeys across the globe, stout little coal barges, ferries collecting men for work, humble skiffs and wherries ... all gliding as smoothly as beetles along the outgoing tide." All that changes when he sees a slight figure in a boat beckoning him. This is Natty, the teenage daughter of Long John Silver. Motion has remembered the "woman of colour" Silver was connected to, and Natty is a mixed-race heroine of subtle complexity.
Silver is commissioning a new jaunt to the island to find the remaining booty, but he needs the treasure map which Jim Sr still keeps locked safely away. Silver is now a ruin of a man, running a tavern in ruffianly Wapping, but still wickedly charismatic and forceful. Besides, Jim Jr is falling for Natty, so he agrees to steal the map. This act of betrayal catapults him into a morally murky world.
They set sail under the command of the splendid Captain Beamish, and enter a sea of nightmare worthy of the Ancient Mariner. Mutinous rumblings and a bizarre suicide indicate that the voyage will not be easy, but nothing prepares the crew for what they find when they get to Treasure Island.
Natty (dressed as a cabin boy) and Jim are tested to the utmost, but are also alive to the island's atmosphere. The isolation that has done for the maroons has preserved unique species, and Motion has fun creating a pre-Darwinian paradise of imaginary flora and fauna. The island is a strange and dreamlike place as well as terrifying; it intensifies rather than slows the action when Jim pauses to note the beauty of an unknown leaf.
Motion utilises a smooth and formal style that complements Stevenson's own but never descends into pastiche. The narrative's darker meditations and developments may stray more into the territory of Joseph Conrad, but in a real sense, RLS is on this voyage too: in the crow's nest is "a Scotsman and a wisp of a fellow" also called Stevenson, who is never part of the action but always looking down from above. I think he'd approve of this rich and thrilling narrative which so ingeniously complements his own.