Selkirk's Island - Diana Souhami

Selkirk's Island
The Original Robinson Crusoe
Diana Souhami
Phoenix Publishers
ISBN 0753813343

Pirates! Gold! Plunder! Cannon! Scurvy! Shipwreck! Goats! Best of all, it's all true...

Selkirk's Island is a great read, but awkwardly structured. On the one hand it offers a rich and compelling insight into the frankly awful life of 18th century sailors, and particularly into the eventful life of Alexander Selkirk, but some of the book seems pasted on, interesting but disjoint from the human stories.

Despite the title and sub-title, much of this book isn't about Selkirk at all. Indeed the book opens and closes with discussion of the real main character - The Island. Located off the coast of Chile, The Island is far from a barren rock - harbouring abundant fish, lobsters, seals and vegetation, it offered sailors a welcome respite, an ideal place to careen their worm-eaten ships. Selkirk was famously marooned there for more than four years, but this isn't the focus of the story - merely one of many colourful episodes in the history of the island, and in the journey of Selkirk's ship. (You probably know by now to ignore book covers, but this one is particularly awful, leading you to think that Selkirk was marooned for nearly thirty years. He wasn't, he was marooned for over four. The cover conflates him with the fictional Crusoe.)

What you get is much more than just the tale of a marooning. The Island is a rich slice of nautical history - we follow the hapless voyages of William Dampier ('the Old Pyrateing Dog') and his crew on their mission, under the flag of the patriotic privateer, to plunder the Spanish treasure galleons on their way back from the New World. Trust me, this isn't Hornblower. By turns cowardly, drunken, unlucky and just plain ridiculous, Dampier leads his crew mainly to their doom. It's colourful and interesting, but it's not comfortable reading for the squeamish, or those with romantic notions of life aboard ship.

That Selkirk is famously marooned we already know, but his life after rescue, and how he rose to fame, and failed to profit from it, also make an appealing tragic tale. I don't think anyone, excepting Defoe, did well from these voyages...

The Island tries to tie together Dampier's voyages, Selkirk's biography, and a potted history of The Island. Sadly, I don't think Souhami marries the strands together well, and a more ruthless editor might well have pruned some of the less colourful material away to give a more natural flow to the narrative. On the plus side, her research seems excellent, and few paragraphs pass without original quotes or well placed insights into the historical aspects of the main action. Perhaps The Island reads a little too academic at times; Souhami has a good eye for incident or detail, and an obvious love for her material, but I felt that her writing lacked the effortless extra something needed to write good non-fiction. Still, recommended if you spent any time as a kid wearing a parrot on your shoulder.

Posted: Wed - August 13, 2003 at 09:35 PM