Master and Commander

Written by Patrick O'Brian
Review by Edward James

What can a reviewer say about Patrick O’Brian? He is a classic, or at least his Aubrey & Maturin series is, as is now proved by the fact that Harper Perennial are republishing the whole series of 21 books seven years after his death, starting with the first of the series, Master & Commander. I would have thought that everybody with the faintest interest in sea stories who can read English (or any of the other languages into which they have been translated) has already read the series and probably has them on his or her bookshelf, but Harper clearly feel that there are new readers out there. No doubt they have been encouraged by the enormous success of the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003.

Not that O’Brian is always easy reading. His novels were not an instant success, and fame and fortune did not come to him until late in his long life. For much of his career he earned his living largely as a translator, notably of Papillon, surely the best escape story ever written. The magic of the Aubrey and Maturin books is cumulative (for the uninitiated, Aubrey is the captain of the ship and Maturin is the ship’s surgeon). Different readers find different beauties. The technical detail beloved of the maritime history buffs I find tedious. I put up with it because it is important to the characters and the characters are important to me.