Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rites of Passage by William Golding

Rites of Passage is written as though a journal by a young man, Edmund Talbot, embarking on a long journey by sea to take up a position as a civil servant in the southern hemisphere. The man writes to his Godfather, who has requested details about the journey, and who is clearly a major benefactor.

Our narrators tone is supercilious, and he has the annoying arrogance of youth - to such an extent that I wasn't sure for a while how old he was supposed to be. Talbot describes his fellow travellers, most of whom he clearly feels superior to, and his attempts to familiarise himself with the vessel of his lengthy journey. After a bout of seasickness at the start of the journey, Talbot prides himself on beginning to pick up some nautical terms. Desperate to meet the captain, as is befitting his station in life, Talbot seeks the captain out on deck, and is sent off with a flea in his ear and instructions to 'read the captains orders'. Talbot's faux pas is eclipsed by similar bumbling from a fellow passenger - the Reverend Colley.

Colley becomes the central subject in the drama on the sea, suffering from disdain and a general lack of faith from most of the crew and human cargo. These unwilling sheep are bolstered by the captain's loathing of the clergy, and what begins as a culture of dismissal become a breeding ground for bullying. Talbot, meanwhile, continues to assume superiority, and plots to have his wicked way with a woman who, he claims, makes a convincing show of piety. On getting his end away, and no longer desiring the prize, Talbot's attention is turned to scheming ways to bridle the lady in question with some other passenger. Talbot's attention is subsequently directed by Summers, one of the ships crew, to helping out Colley, who has taken to his bed after a night of drinking because he seems unable to bear the shame.

So it is that the final installments of the drama unfolds, with Colley unwilling to rise from his bed, Talbot offering comfort under duress, finding Colley's own journal and reading it in horror (it reads very much like Talbot's own journal) whilst Colley expires in this quarters. The captain, in a political move, decides to investigate the death and enlists Talbot's help. Talbot's momentary guilt about his own poor use of the parson is quickly explained away the following morning, and he destroys the journal and keeps secret the cause of Colley's shame that most of the crew know about, but few of the passengers.

As the first in a trilogy, this book guarantees that I won't read the other two. I found the tone unbearable, the class wars and the politics depressing, and with a collection of characters that are all, in some way, unpalatable, I confess that I did not get much pleasure from this read at all. The setting of the ship (close quarters, barely any privacy) and the claustrophobia of a long journey with many strangers are the highlights of the novel, but the dense prose and the English privileged classes vernacular were a significant turn-off.

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