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15 May 2016 @ 03:17 pm
Review of Napoleon's Last Island, by Thomas Keneally, pub. Sceptre 2016-05-15  
"When I reached home on the last day of my accustomed life, the life I wanted, I spotted in the V of the mountains a ship newly anchored in the roads, with a few lumpy store ships I had seen the day before around it. This new ship was a sloop, fast and sleek."

The ship is the Icarus, which has arrived at St Helena in 1815, ahead of the main squadron which is bringing Napoleon Bonaparte to imprisonment there. The speaker is thirteen-year-old Betsy Balcombe, daughter of the Superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company, who has lived most of her life on the island and will be as much a fish out of water away from it as Napoleon is on it. Betsy is based on a real person who left her memoirs, as did several other characters in the novel.

While the authorities are building the house at Longwood which will become his prison-compound, the great man lives in the Pavilion, a sort of rental cottage-cum-summerhouse in the Balcombes' garden, and Betsy becomes his friend. She is a spiky, intelligent, opinionated girl who chafes against the constraints of gender and propriety and is often her own worst enemy. The ex-Emperor, his own world shrinking around him, finds in her both a sparring partner and kindred spirit. She in turn is not immune to his personal charm, even though she can see its workings, as it were, and while she never does quite come to terms with his habit of cheating at whist, she dislikes it far less than she does the petty-minded, bureaucratic obsession with rules and regulations that characterises the island's governor, Hudson Lowe.

There are two remarkable achievements in this novel, and the first is the character of Betsy. Keneally has done singularly well to get so far inside a teenage girl's head and make her so believable. Whether she is provoking Napoleon with awkward questions, getting involved in pointless arguments with her family and obstinately refusing to get out of them, or locking a loathed rival in the lavatory, she is very real and, even at her worst, oddly sympathetic. It is only too credible that Napoleon, a man who seems to have missed out on childhood, should be so eager to join her in child's play and develop a sense of mischief which hitherto has had less harmless outlets.

The other achievement is the realisation of St Helena. On a human level it is a tiny place with a small, closed society, yet one with defined strata – European incomers, those born on the island, known as yamstocks, and imported slaves. Geographically it looks forbidding to Betsy at first: looming inhospitable rock as if, to quote one character, God hated bays. Yet when they penetrate to the interior she finds her new home "a vale of orchards and roses", and even among the steep escarpments waterfalls fall into heart-shaped bowls of rock. This outwardly forbidding landscape with hidden possibilities resembles Betsy's own character in some ways, and her sense of loss on leaving it is very easy to identify with.

In fact, this brings me to my only doubt about the novel: I am not sure it starts and ends in the right places; certainly it is far more alive on St Helena than in England and Australia. The first chapter, "After the Island", one of those prologues set after the story's events, is a really slow start; I struggled to feel at all involved with it. What it does in the way of introducing the family, and relating Napoleon's death, could be done elsewhere and I think myself the story would be the better for beginning with the family's move to St Helena. As for the end, I can see why he wanted to follow the family to Australia, which is after all where he and his audience live, but again I am not sure the Australian scenes add much. It's one of those novels that don't so much end as come to a stop, at what feels like a fairly random point. Its true end, it seems to me, is when Betsy leaves St Helena, which is both the home of her spirit and the place where the most momentous encounter of her life occurred.