W. Clark Russell,
The Wreck of the Grosvenor
(Low, 1877; McBooks, 1999)

I might wish for a different title.

While The Wreck of the Grosvenor is a suitably dramatic hook to get readers into the book, it's also something of a spoiler. Our hero Edward Royle, the second mate, goes through quite a lot of hell to keep this ship afloat -- through vicious storms, high seas, murder plots and a mutiny that is foreshadowed almost from the first page -- so it's something of a downer to know from the cover that this ship is not destined to reach port.

Still, the trip is a thrilling one and it's worth your time to make the passage.

The book, first published in 1877, was lauded by no less than Herman Melville for its nautical realism, and that's saying something. While lacking Melville's eponymous whale, Grosvenor packs plenty of action into Royle's dramatic journey.

Given its origins in the mid-19th century, dear reader, you'll understand that the book's style is a little different from tales penned in the last 100 years. But author W. Clark Russell, whose own experiences in the British merchant marine provided grist for his writing mill, doesn't address his audience directly as often as I'd feared, nor does the text drag as much as many novels from that era are notorious for doing.

And, while writers of nautical fiction are often cautioned against introducing unnecessary female characters into their stories -- not for any blatant sexism, but because women were rarely found aboard ships at the time, and placing them there often feels awkward and forced -- Russell manages to inject a bit of credible romance into this tale.

The Wreck of the Grosvenor is worth reading for its historic significance alone; not only is it a progenitor of the genre, but its account of conditions at sea helped reform laws governing the lives of British sailors. But it's also just a pleasure to read.

book review by
Tom Knapp

29 September 2012

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