Before Johnny Depp and his kohl-eyed and strangely un-bloodthirsty Jack Sparrow came along, our entire iconography of pirates and all things piratical—from X-marks-the-spot treasure maps to peg-legged villains with parrots—was the work of Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scottish author’s Treasure Island (1883), a page-turner if there ever was one, spawned numerous films and turned young Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver into characters still instantly recognizable. Given the story’s enduring pull, and the loose ends Stevenson left dangling—there’s still more loot on that island, not to mention three marooned pirates—small wonder someone has tried his hand at a sequel. And not just any someone, but Sir Andrew Motion, 59, former poet laureate of Britain and now, with Silver: Return to Treasure Island, first-time novelist.
All stories tire in the retelling, muses one of Silver’s characters; his aim, Motion says in an interview, was to “refresh” a novel with dark themes long lost under its boys’ adventure veneer. It’s now 1802, a quarter century after the events of Treasure Island. Jim Hawkins is a burned-out, constantly hungover widower, while Long John Silver is old and blind, as well as crippled. But there is a new young Jim, the original’s 18-year-old son, and Silver has a daughter of that age, Natty—and enough of his demonic energy and guile left to hatch a plan that lures the boy into stealing his father’s precious map and sailing back to the Caribbean with Natty.
So far, so Stevensonian—right down to what Motion calls the “secret engine” of the story, the fraught relationship between fathers and sons. “That was certainly a big issue in Stevenson’s own life,” notes Motion, “and it’s there in Treasure Island, where Long John is half nemesis and half father figure to Jim.” Natty, who shares her father’s uncanny skill at reading others’ hearts, is masterful at seducing Jim, with only the lightest of touches and unspoken promises, into betraying his father, or rather into yielding to his deep desire to do so. And where did she learn how to do this? Motion provides a queasy hint of an answer: when Natty takes Jim to meet her father, the blind old man calls her over to rub his cheek against hers and have her lie down beside him, while Natty’s pet myna squawks, “Leave me alone, leave me alone.” The bird is “a kind of Greek chorus,” Motion says. “Even if its utterances can be gnomic.”
Also reaching back to the original is a vein of almost biological determinism. The more profoundly evil Stevenson’s characters were, the more overt their physical disabilities. Blind Pew died in the original story, and now Silver bears both of their afflictions, while Jordan Hands—linked geographically as well as genetically to his uncle Israel, killed by the first Jim in Treasure Island—has a mutilated ear. Yet in Motion’s story biology is not necessarily destiny. “It was important for me to make Jim and Natty children of the light, born after the French Revolution, into a world of more possibility,” he says. So Natty, the child of a black mother and subject to possible sale as a slave in many parts of the New World, aims to surpass what would seem to be her fate and pass doubly, as a white and as a boy. Her ancestry is never openly revealed, at least not in Silver—Motion plans further sequels to his sequel—but the crew does learn of her sex, causing her to fight hard, with fair success, for the men’s respect.
For all that, while Treasure Island essentially shrugs at its own moral ambiguities, Silver is a powerfully melancholy tale, a meditation on death, the human impulse to savagery, and the endless ways good intentions go awry. When asked about the critical reactions of some Treasure Island fans, “something more lighthearted?” laughs Motion. “Wrong book, wrong author.” He began writing as the occupation of Iraq descended into blood and chaos. “My characters too are bringing the sword of truth and justice to a foreign land, and things go horribly wrong.” As the marooned pirate Smirke, the Kurtz-like ruler of the island’s degraded dystopia, put it, “I’ve never seen good come out of goodness yet.” Smirke may be proven wrong in future volumes, but as the title of Silver’s last chapter, “The wreck of all our hopes,” indicates, not this time.