Friday, 12 May 2017

Review: 'Treasure Island' by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure IslandWhen I was young, I had an audio cassette (yup, somehow I am old enough to remember these fondly!) of Treasure Island. I hardly remember anything from it, except a lingering suspicion of Long John Silver and a certain fondness for this story I don't really know anything about. So when I found myself with a free space on my 'Currently Reading' shelf, I decided to dedicate it to Stevenson's classic. And yet I approached the novel with a sense of apprehension. Reading a classic for the first time that has already become part of popular culture to such an extent as Treasure Island comes with a special kind of pressure. On the one hand, you already love this book because it's a part of you, but on the other hand there is the very distinct possibility you will hate it because it's not what you expect. So with this dilemma in mind, I set myself to task reading Treasure Island.

Original Pub. Date: 1883
Original Publisher:v
The most popular pirate story ever written in English, featuring one of literature’s most beloved “bad guys,” Treasure Island has been happily devoured by several generations of boys—and girls—and grownups. Its unforgettable characters include: young Jim Hawkins, who finds himself owner of a map to Treasure Island, where the fabled pirate booty is buried; honest Captain Smollett, heroic Dr. Livesey, and the good-hearted but obtuse Squire Trelawney, who help Jim on his quest for the treasure; the frightening Blind Pew, double-dealing Israel Hands, and seemingly mad Ben Gunn, buccaneers of varying shades of menace; and, of course, garrulous, affable, ambiguous Long John Silver, who is one moment a friendly, laughing, one-legged sea-cook . . . and the next a dangerous pirate leader!

One of the first things you come to realise when reading Treasure Island is that it is a Young Adult novel mainly written for young boys in the late 1800s. Originally named The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys, Treasure Island is a coming-of-age story in which a young boy becomes a man, discovers his inner strength and conquers his fears. Part of what made Treasure Island so groundbreaking is its introduction of so many staples of the pirate genre. Long John Silver unironically says 'Shiver me timbers', he has a parrot on his shoulder, there is a lot of rum, 'X's marks the spot, and there's a whole variety of missing limbs. This was all completely new and instantaneously iconic in the 1800s. Reading Treasure Island now, in the 21st century in which TV shows like Black Sails take these tropes, make them gritty and sexy, it feels almost quaint.

Perhaps there is a very obvious reason as to why I felt a little bit detached from Treasure Island, and Stevenson himself has left a handy quote to explain that reason:
"[Treasure Island] was to be a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded... "
Now, Stevenson is not the first man to say his work was created solely for boys. George Lucas himself famously said that he created Star Wars for teenage boys, yet in his mind what those boys enjoyed never actively excluded women and he created at least one of the most iconic female characters in cinema. However, Treasure Island feels a lot more like simple boys store in which there is indeed something of a lack of depth. Stevenson does comment on social class, on the beauty of exploration and on violence, but it is more of an aside than anything else. Qualifying as a Young Adult novel, it could not be compared, for example, to fellow YA badge-carrier Lord of the Flies which is nothing if not social commentary. So while Treasure Island is a fun and entertaining read, it is not the most gripping of novels anymore. It's lack of "fine writing" means it hasn't aged as well as some equally ancient books have.

Robert Louis Stevenson is a very verbal writer. What I mean by that is that Treasure Island is full of conversations and mental monologues. We are constantly in Jim's head, accompanying him through every physical and mental twist and turn of his journey. As such, there is surprisingly little visual imagery described. Here I was, waiting for grand vistas of the seas, of new islands uncharted, tropical climates and outlandish animals. Instead it is all rather straight to the point. The novel starts of very exciting, as Jim's normal life gets interrupted by the sheer excitement of the idea of piracy. However, the plot slowly but surely drifts off afterwards and it became more of a struggle to keep reading. Although I am glad I read Treasure Island, I will more fondly remember the audio cassette than the book.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed reading Treasure Island, it was like a return to childhood. However, this return also left me slightly disappointed. Some of the magic was gone, yet  I'm still glad I read this classic. There is something rewarding in going back to the book that started it all, even if it's just to appreciate how the tropes have developed over time.

2 comments:

  1. I've never read this. Although more accurately I've never finished it- I started it a couple years ago and frankly got bored and drifted away. Which surprises me since I like pirate stuff- but it wasn't grabbing me. Reading those Stevenson quotes helps me understand that a bit. And I would like a little more visual imagery of the explorations. I may finish it though...

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    1. I did honestly also get a bit bored while reading it and only sheer determination got me through! And same for me, those quotes did make some sense at the end. I'd say give it another try, perhaps you'll find something else in it now! Do let me know if you get through it and thanks for commenting :)

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