I fully confess to have only read Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Apparently he's written a bunch of novels that wallow in obscurity with contemporary readers. Luckily, he won the Booker Prize in 1980 for the first part of his "To the Ends of the Earth" trilogy, called Rites of Passage, which means I had the honour of reading it.
Edmund Talbot is a well-connected man of the upper class, who has been given a government job in Australia. On his long sea journey to this new career, he keeps a journal of what happens on the ship. He encounters sailors, officers, the brutish captain who harbours a hatred for another passenger, a parson. Talbot gets involved as a mediator when the parson gets ridiculously drunk and makes a fool of himself. However, that is not the full story in the slightest.
A common theme in my reviews of Bookers is the prevalence of the theme of class, and Rites of Passage is no exception. In fact, one important line of the book is that "class is the language of the British". This novel is steeped in concepts of class and where the boundaries are.
Talbot is sort of aristocratic, but lowers himself to patronize the common sailors in order to learn more about them. An officer, Summers, who is a corporate ladder climber takes advantage of this in order to further his career.
Many of the interactions between Talbot and Summers have a distinct subtext of who belongs to which class, who was born into it, and who fought to move up. This is by far the most interesting aspect of the novel.
The central plot, however, is not terribly captivating. At its core, Rites of Passage features a mystery of what happened to the parson. One doesn't realize that this is a mystery until Talbot finds the parson's journal, and the narrative shifts to the parson's point of view. At this point, we see the same events but from another perspective, highlighting everything Talbot has missed in his self-centred upper class way.
All of the novel is written in pseudo-nineteenth century language, without archaic spelling, thank heavens, but Golding makes it believable. What he doesn't do is make characters very believable. Most of the passengers on the ship get one or two scenes, and not developed in any meaningful way. Plot strands are picked up and left behind.
Golding may be critic-proof for Lord of the Flies, but Rites of Passage is not. This is a good book, but suffers from some glaring problems, such as a loose plot that doesn't get gel until the last ten pages. That's asking a lot of a reader. However, the concepts of class that Golding plays with has rich depth. I liked this, but I certainly didn't love it.