by Richard Hughes
– there are some spoilers in this review –
I found this story curious, amusing and baffling at the same time. It\’s about five English kids who have been raised in Jamaica at the end of colonialism. Their parents\’ estates collapse when a hurricane basically levels the island, and the kids are shipped off to England for safety. The ship doesn\’t get far when it is set upon by pirates, and the children get transferred to the pirate ship. The adults on the orignal boat think them killed, the pirates make off with their loot and then don\’t know what to do with the kids. They try to offload them on another island, and fail. They take them along criss-crossing the Carribean in a desultory way (piracy being a faltering occupation at the very end of its heyday) and rather ignore their presence unless forced to deal with them. So the children are more or less left to their own devices on board. Someone else said the book was like a mix of Lord of the Flies with Peter Pan or Treasure Island- I\’d concur.
The story is mostly concerned with the inner lives of children- and how different it is from adults\’ reasoning. The children unquestioningly accept their change in circumstances and adapt, even developing an affection for the pirates they now live among. Not so many horrid things occur as you might think- although what events do turn, are awful enough- however seen through a hazy uncomprehending screen of the childrens\’ viewpoint most of the time. The oldest girl may have been raped by one of the pirates, that is never made clear. Another girl kills a man the pirates had taken prisoner, in a fit of pure terror. There\’s a monkey with a gangrenous tail, a girl who makes dolls out of every ragtag bit of paraphernalia on board, a boy who unthinkingly imitates and idolizes the pirates. (There\’s a significant scene near the beginning that takes place in an old elevated warehouse, with a beam and tackle for raising cargo. I actually saw for the first time myself these hooks on the outside of upper stories of buldings during a brief stop in Amsterdam last year, but never encountered them in fiction until I read Heartsease. Now I can actually picture the situation, where before seeing those buildings it would have been harder to imagine.) There\’s also a very sad scene where the pirates run down a ship that happens to carry wildlife as cargo, for a circus. The tiger and lion were released from their cages in hopes of a fight, but there was no spectacle- the animals were so emaciated and sick from sea travel that they only wanted to crawl back into their cages, and just lashed out at people when they came too near…
Most of it though is about the strange dreamlike inner world the children inhabit (for one in particular, Emily, it shows her sudden self-realization quite distinctly.) Their games and small bitter quarrels, their quirky logic and fierce battles for attention. Eventually the children\’s presence becomes a hindrance to the pirates, who determine to be rid of them- but in a humane way if they can. The fragmented way in which the kids answer questions after they leave the pirate ship, mis-remembering certain incidents, entirely forgetting others, fixating on small details that don\’t seem relevant- that appeared quite accurate to me. There\’s a terrible ironic twist at the end. The whole story is so odd and uneven, yet brilliant in its depiction of the kids in a rough situation. I had a hard time getting through it and at the same time can\’t stop thinking about it. I\’m not sure if I really like it, but it\’s one I want to re-read later and see what I think again.
Rating: 3/5 241 pages, 1929