William Golding was an author primarily known for ‘Lord of the Flies’, his seminal and remarkably astute tale on the moral depravities which can assail human beings, especially the young, when left to their own devices without a law of the land. I had read that book a while back and was suitably impressed by his wordplay and his characterizations of boys who found themselves having to fend for themselves on a remote island after their plane crashes. However, he is also a Booker Prize winner back in the year 1980 for a slim novel called Rites of Passage, the first of a trilogy of books on a certain ship’s journey from England to Australia in the early nineteenth century. While maybe not as gripping as his 1954 classic, it is still a slowly enthralling read which achieves a fine balance between trying to recreate the authenticity of the time and in keeping the narrative pace sprightly enough.
The novel takes the form mostly of a journal kept by a young man, Edmund Talbot, traveling aboard the ship. This journal is meant for the pleasure and perusal of his godfather (and likely benefactor) back in England and Edmund’s accounts incorporate his relative greenness when it comes to both matters of sea travel as well as the machinations of the different classes of society he finds himself in. As he initially comes aboard and is shown his modest quarters, it is obvious he is full of a certain sense of his own self-importance and his firm belief in the ways of the upper class he belongs to as well as the differences in the classes. However, it is also clear that he isn’t a bad man per se, just a product of his times who is full of the naivety and privilege afforded by a lineage that has secured for him this attempt to embark on his career in colonial administration in Australia. He doesn’t hesitate to use this connection to put people in their places when he feels he has not been afforded sufficient respect. Prime among these is the gruff and distant captain, Anderson, of the one-time warship who enforces his standing orders with a sort of dictatorial authority. He also finds his bit of fun with the opposite sex with the alluring Miss. Brocklebank and then gets in a tizzy on what to do about her once it’s over. While he seems to get along well with the officers, he doesn’t forget to remind the more sensible of them, Summers, of how he (Summers), despite coming from a lower class, is aping well the customs of a higher station than the one he was born into. There is also a constantly peeved rationalist on board, Prettiman, who walks around on deck with a blunderbuss in order to shoot down an albatross and thus prove that ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is nothing but a lot of superstitious hogwash. But the person on board who most intrigues and disgusts him in equal measure is the parson Colley, a timid and bungling person who is nevertheless firm in his desire to establish Godly customs on the ship. Which can be a bit of a problem when the Captain and most of the sailors do not have much reverence for a man of the cloth. And Colley does not have the power of a privileged position either to protect him from their wrath as he makes one after another misguidedly genuine attempts to establish a good rapport with the Captain. Eventually something has to break. Talbot is an increasingly beleaguered commentator as chaos starts to descend on the ship’s society and dark undercurrents of human nature come out. A part of the narrative also takes on the form of a letter the parson Colley is writing to his sister, and this provides a compellingly different perspective of matters on board.
It’s an intriguingly effective melting pot of an environment Golding has created on board the ship and the writer manages to draw out slowly and surely various facets of the personalities populating this makeshift society far away from the social conventions of the land. The important pivots on which the story turns are represented by Talbot and Colley and their characters are well etched out to aid the narrative, as are the supporting cast of characters on board. Talbot’s slow awakening from his position of relatively easily attained privilege to the previously un-entertained thought that perhaps his ideas of the ways of the world should not be set in stone and his coming to grips with the events on the ship is masterfully executed. Similarly, the tribulations of Colley are opened up to us in a slow burning and effective manner which ensures that along with Talbot we are also now privy to the possibilities of darkness in people’s hearts, which can affect one both from outside as well as from the devil within, when normal social order is dispensed with. The language works too. Golding has managed to infuse his prose with the language of the time and yet make it easy enough for the reader to mostly make sense of it by having two landsman be the primary narrators.
Overall, though not as engrossing a work as ‘Lord of the Flies’, it is a solid piece of fiction which intrigues me enough to try and read the rest of the trilogy in the future. I would give this 3.5/5.