On Land or at Sea, Still a Great Yarn

The Yellow Admiral

By Patrick O'Brian

W. W. Norton & Company,

262 pp., $24

In these days of instantaneous electronic communication, it is hard to conceive of the isolation of mariners in the great Age of Sail. Out of contact with land for months or years at a time, their ship became a separate world to its officers and crew. To cast off from land was to enter a different society, ruled by rigid discipline yet paradoxically free of the constraints of life ashore.

This tension between the land and sea is at the heart of the latest in Patrick O'Brian's series of sea adventures. As the story begins, we find the English heroes Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin on the beach. With Bonaparte in exile on the island of Elba, the opportunities for promotion are few. In addition, Jack has gained the enmity of a powerful naval officer by his stalwart opposition to the enclosure of Simmon's Lea, rural land held in common since the days of the Anglo-Saxons.

O'Brian is a mannerist and social historian as well as a naval buff, and his depiction of Aubrey's home life as a country squire and lord of the manor is warmly and humorously drawn. Nevertheless, Jack would gladly chuck the lot for a chance to go adventuring with Stephen again.

The opportunity arises to travel to Chile on detached service, as an admiral in that South American Navy. The description of the first part of the voyage as far as the island of Madeira is as lovely a piece of writing as anything in O'Brian's work. At novel's end, they learn that Napoleon has escaped and is marching for Paris; Jack and Stephen are at once back at their old martial trade.

One can only hope and wait for the next volume.

* Frederick Pratter is a freelance writer who lives in Hull, Mass.

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