A lot of the writing advice out there focuses on what NOT to do. Why it works is my occasional series where I take books I love and try to pinpoint what the author does especially well.
Today’s entry: Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian.
First, I’ll be honest, Master & Commander is at times an incredibly baffling novel. There’s an overwhelming level of seafaring jargon with little explanation or context, the perspective shifts around capriciously, and there’s confusing description like this:
Mahon, and the Sophie surrounded by her own smoke, firing both broadsides all round and one over in salute to the admiral’s flag aboard the Foudroyant, whose imposing mass lay just between the Pigtail Stairs and the ordnance wharf.
I have literally no idea what this means, even within its context. And yet I love Master & Commander!
Here’s why I think it works.
Jack’s enthusiasm is contagious
It’s safe to say that there is no character in literature who loves their job more than Jack loves being a master and commander.
He is SO PSYCHED to gain his promotion and he loves the job more than life itself. He relishes the opportunity to demonstrate his skill and navigate danger. He’s just so unbelievably excited.
I mean, look what happens when he gets shot:
His head jerked sideways, his hat darted across the deck: a musket-ball from the corsair had nicked his ear. It was perfectly numb under his investigating hand, and it was pouring with blood. He stepped down from the rail, craning his head out sideways to bleed to windward, while his right hand sheltered his precious epaulette from the flow. ‘Killick,’ he shouted bending to keep his eyes on the galley under the taut arch of the square mainsail, ‘bring me an old coat and another handkerchief.’
I love this moment! He gets shot and the only thing he can think about is not getting blood on his beloved epaulette, the stripes that denote his rank. Jack’s pride in his role and his imperviousness to danger are on glrorious display.
There’s another moment where Jack goes to talk to the more squeamish Stephen, the ship’s doctor and his frienemy, to offer him a chance to partake in an impending battle. Jack’s excitement leaps off the page:
…’my dear sir, do you choose to go below or should you rather stay on deck? Perhaps it would divert you to go to into the maintop with a musket, along with the sharpshooters, and have a bang at the villains?
When a character cares about something it’s totally infectious. We start caring too. We want what they want. And I often found myself bursting with pride for Jack as he repeatedly overcomes long odds.
Descriptions are infused with personality
While there were times when I didn’t track action scenes or what everyone was doing with the riggings, O’Brian really nails the descriptions in key moments.
Here’s how O’Brian first describes the beguiling Carmen:
She was a fine dashing woman, and without being either pretty or beautiful she gave the impression of being both, mostly from the splendid way she carried her head.
After Jack first takes his new crew for a spin around the harbor under the watchful gaze of his rivals on shore, O’Brian infuses the description with relief in the moment they turn back home:
A gentle push from above heeled the Sophie over, then another and another, each more delightfully urgent until it was one steady thrust; she was under way, and all along her side there sang a run of living water.
“There sang a run of living water!” So good.
I might have liked a little more clarity throughout, but O’Brian knows how to make the events come alive when it really matters.
Authenticity goes a long way
Sure, I’ve complained about the level of seafaring jargon, but O’Brian leaves no doubt that he knows the world of 19th century Napoleonic War naval battles backwards and forwards.
O’Brian’s command of the world of his novel is incredible and it’s a wonderfully immersive experience.
Readers will stick with you through some extensive physical description, even if they don’t understand everything, if it feels like they’re in confident and capable hands.
Have you read Master & Commander? What did you think?
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