Boyne includes a bibliography of reference sources to underpin his claim to be telling a story based on historical truth but he wears his learning lightly and the tale is very much an adventure yarn. This is partly due to the irrepressible spirit of its narrator, 14-year-old John Jacob Turnstile, an earthy and occasionally coarse but humorous and thoughtful Jim Hawkins, who, as the captain’s servant, has the perfect excuse to be present at all the crucial moments that lead to the mutiny and beyond. Comparisons to Joseph Conrad and William Golding’s RITES OF PASSAGE trilogy are not outrageous, and Boyne has clearly paid attention to TREASURE ISLAND. Throw in the exotic setting of Otaheite, the mutiny, and one of nautical history’s most impressive feats of endurance, and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY is well-nigh irresistible.
It’s not simply a boy’s own adventure, either. Turnstile is as complex a character as his master, a reluctant sailor forced to chose, at the outset, between a year in gaol and taking service aboard The Bounty. Once he comes to terms with seasickness and the rigidly hierarchical system aboard ship, Turnstile finds himself conflicted about the mission, which is to transport breadfruit trees from the island of Otaheite to the West Indies as a cheap food source for plantation slaves.
“‘It’s an adventure of great merit we are engaged in, Turnstile,’ [Captain Bligh] told me then, wagging his finger at me as if I was a babe in arms. ‘Some day, when you are an old man, you will look back and tell your grandchildren of it. Perhaps their own slaves will be fed on breadfruit then too, and you will feel enormous pride at our achievements.’Turnstile, an orphan press-ganged into male prostitution as a young boy, empathises with the slaves rather than his master and peers. Observes the boy:
I nodded but wasn’t sure that I would.”
“He was not the type to follow my line of thinking; he was too well educated and of too high a social class to have respect for the rights of man.”The rights of women, too, are important to Turnstile when the shipload of sex-starved sailors finally reach Otaheite. Concerned that the women are only faking their delight, as he himself has had to do so many times, Turnstile is among a minority of two who refrain from indulging in carnal delights, the other being Captain Bligh. That the young boy eventually allows himself to be seduced by a Polynesian beauty in an idyllic glade may seem the stuff of stereotypical male fantasy, but Turnstile’s painfully slow progress towards the point where he finally allows himself to consent to what had been previously been a painful intimacy stands in stark contrast to the posturing and preening of Fletcher Christian’s alpha male, and his physical and emotional fulfilment is well-earned.
That Christian is caricatured as a self-serving narcissist is this novel’s one real weakness, incidentally, particularly when he is compared to the multi-faceted Bligh; and while Boyne’s ambition to reverse the roles of hero and villain is laudable, it was unnecessary to bludgeon the point home with so blunt an instrument.
That’s a minor caveat, however, and in truth the real conflict of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY is not that of Bligh versus Christian, but Turnstile’s instinctive Christian responses to the repressive Christianity of the Empire’s establishment caste (Christ, where His name is invoked, is invariably referred to as ‘Saviour’). God-botherers and Bible-thumpers are given as short a shrift as those who denigrate their island hosts as ‘savages’ and loot their natural resources; Turnstile, the outcast, social pariah and former sex slave, naively and subversively and with no little humour preaches a sermon of equality, tolerance and respect for all, regardless of class, religion or race. It’s a relevant subtext for the contemporary reader, albeit one that’s bound up in a stirring tale of heroism and derring-do, and the result is a truly terrific novel. To paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson on the publication of TREASURE ISLAND: “If this don’t fetch the kids, then they’ve gone rotten since I knew ’em.”