PIRATES AND PETTICOATS: An enthusiastic book review by Sarah Death
Posted on 11th February 2015 at 12:34 by Ian Giles
SELTA member Sarah Death reviews novelist Elin Boardy's latest offering, which sounds a gripping yarn. Sarah has included a brief translation from the opening to provide a taste of the novel.
The Story of Mary Jones
Written BY myself AND in all honesty.
About My Life and About
Dolores & John Silver
as it was told to me
Wahlström & Widstrand, 2014, 254 pages.
‘Of Silver we have heard no more. That formidable seafaring man with one leg has at last gone clean out of my life; but I daresay he met his old Negress, and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and Captain Flint. It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.’
Those who know their Treasure Island will recognise these as almost the closing words of the novel, and will also know that in its early chapters, before the eventful expedition to the eponymous island, we meet Silver as the proprietor and publican of The Spyglass in the port city of Bristol, with a clientele of sailors and old sea dogs, not all on the right side of the law.
Treasure Island seems to be in vogue at the moment. Bryony Lavery’s adaptation currently in performance at London’s National Theatre features ‘Jim, the inn-keeper’s daughter’ who, like her male prototype, Jim Hawkins the cabin boy, joins the ship’s crew. On seeing this book announced in the Swedish publisher’s catalogue, I expected something similar. But in Elin Boardy’s take on the story we stay largely at home and the expedition to the island comes to us through the prism of Silver himself, who gives his version in reluctant gobbets to the women at the heart of the novel, his wife Dolores and the narrator, kitchen maid Mary. There are sallies into the teeming streets of Bristol, a long voyage in which seasickness lays Mary low, and later, provisioning trips down the hill with the mule in the tropical heat of Port-de-Paix, but the novel is set largely within the four walls of home. Dolores’ sale of the tavern and return to her roots in Hispaniola with Mary in tow is prompted by their hopes – soon dashed, as we already know – that when they eventually rendezvous with Silver he will have a fortune stashed away.
As for Mary’s entry into the Silver ménage, there are too many mouths to feed at home where her elder sister is struggling to bring up the orphaned family, so Mary is packed off to nearby Bristol to earn her own living. She stumbles by accident into a job as a skivvy at the Spyglass tavern, and finds that her master is none other than the infamous Long John. The household is completed by Silver’s wife Dolores and his devoted, wayward, vocal female parrot named for Silver’s old adversary Flint.
Elin Boardy is wonderfully steeped in the classic novel that inspired her but determined to give it her own twist. In her iteration, The Spyglass is a watering hole no better or worse than many, its proprietor a generally sociable man but prone to swift and violent action against troublemakers. Mary finds herself increasingly bound to its owners as she becomes complicit in the smuggling activities on which the inn’s profitability depends.
Dolores is a strong female character and in many ways the novel’s hub. She was born on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and she and her family were taken as slaves. Their father saved from his scant wages to buy their freedom, but poverty kept them enslaved after his death. She finally escaped and led a chequered life that she keeps largely to herself; only snippets emerge but they are hair-raising enough and have left her mentally and physically scarred, and she always carries a knife. Her love for her man is as deep as her devotion to her religion. Her faith in the spirits known as lwa is an area of her life that remains shadowy to both Mary and Silver. When Mary meets Dolores, the woman’s vernacular is peppered with the Creole language of a world she is trying not to lose. The dialogue between the main characters conveys the mixed emotions, inhibitions and bravado of human interactions; it is understated, not strewn with briny piratical jargon; the psychology beneath the surface is finely observed.
Silver and Dolores become Mary’s friends, the only ones she has, and before long they are almost in loco parentis. Dolores is her mentor in many areas of life, and teaches the illiterate girl to write in order to empower her, in the hope that any danger of her ending up in the house of ill repute in Little King Street will diminish. Mary’s painfully produced first journal entries, complete with crossings out, are affecting. She develops into a more assured narrator as the book progresses, though perhaps we only become truly aware of it in the closing chapters, when she decides to write a fuller version of her first, self-doubting account of Silver’s last moments. The grief felt by Mary and particularly Dolores after the death of the larger-than-life Silver’s is palpable, anguished and protracted; it suffuses the book.
The author is a great portrayer of desire and repulsion and the heady cocktail they can sometimes make in combination. From the outset, Mary feels a frisson of something for Silver, for all his deformity, but he never takes advantage of her as other men in the tavern try to. She is exploring her own sexuality and has considered herself a freak for being attracted to her own sex until Silver speaks openly to her about the proclivities of some of his former crewmates, an openness which gives her the confidence to explore her own path.
At the market in Hispaniola she makes the acquaintance of Agnès, who works for the nuns at the convent, and their relationship slowly blossoms. Mary feels able to write about the intensity of her feelings for Agnès but she stops short of portraying much of their physical intimacy. Agnès’s mother was a slave who was repeatedly impregnated by a plantation owner and finally died in childbirth, and her ambition is to learn to help women when they give birth. Will Mary’s feelings for Agnès impel her to leave Dolores all alone and set out on this precarious path?
The novel recently won the annual literary prize awarded by the Swedish magazine Tidningen Vi. The eminent literary judges were clearly carried away by the novel and delivered this verdict (my translation):
‘With great humour, boldness and perfect pitch, Elin Boardy hijacks the traditional adventure yarn and gives us dockside taverns and treasure hunts seen from the lowly kitchenmaid’s perspective. In The Story of Mary Jones, we find Treasure Island reincarnated as a sensual tale of sisterhood, solidarity, betrayal and unexpected love.’
I can only agree: I found this a playful, charming, addictive novel, skilfully and sparely written. It has a great cover design too, by Sara R. Acedo.
The novel opens thus (my translation):
The Blue House, Bonneau, Hispaniola
13th January in this Year of the Lord 17-
Silver is dead.
He died this morning, just before dawn. Moman gri, as Dolores calls it. Gri, that is a cruel word, for describing pain, not a colour. And now Silver’s death, at just the moment I had feared. Why? Maybe because it is the worst of all things, wherever you are on earth.
I left them alone when I saw it was time. We sat up all night, Dolores & me. And Flint perched on the bedhead, her eyes unmoving as always, but her feathers were ruffled up and she turned her head and looked at him as if she, like us, was listening for the slightest sound, the slightest gasp.
And why should she not?
No, I do not know how to write about it.
I got up and moved, stopped here in front of the window. Saw the sun forcing its way up out of the sea, up out of the mists, and I saw that whole dreadful change from grey to light, from dirty sky to a gleaming hot flame yellow and then blue. The way the sun hesitates each morning, as if it wonders whether to trouble itself or not.
And it is just the same: a person’s breathing that hesitates and is checked and slows down and, in the end, stops entirely.
And since then I have not known what to do with today, so I took out this book and sat down at the table and wrote, though I scarcely know how, and though my writing is just scrawl, Dolores says, but it seemed to be the only thing to do.
And now I have written it.
Elin Boardy lives in Gothenburg and alongside her writing she works as a librarian. She has her own website (in Swedish) at www.elin.boardy.se
Her previous novels are: Allt som återstår (2008, All That Remains), a family saga set on Sweden’s West Coast in the early 1800s; Mot ljuset (2011, Towards the Light), a portrait of a young Swedish woman in Malyasia in the 1940s.
This gifted young storyteller is not the first Swedish writer to succumb to the lure of Treasure Island. Björn Larsson wrote his novel Long John Silver in 1995 and it was published by Harvill in Tom Geddes’ English translation in 1999.
Photograph of Elin Boardy: Lisa Irwall