While reading Blessed Isle by Alex Beecroft, I felt like I was reading poetry. Simply put, I wallowed in the beauty of this author's prose, evocative imagery, sharply defined characterizations, and a plot that flirted and lured me to keep turning pages. Blessed Isle is written in a dialogic epistolary style, with journal entries instead of correspondence from both Harry and Garnet. It is a tale of derring-do, adventure and misadventure on the high seas in the 18th century in Her Majesty's Navy.
The journal entries worked so well to not only heighten the drama but also to give the story a dash of realism and a more intimate look at both main characters' thoughts, personal views, reflections, and motivations. It's interesting that "Ardent Isle" is in fact a real island called Ducie Island in the Pitcairns. Knowing this as well as the realistic touches of language, customs, and history sprinkled throughout this novella pulled me right into the story.
Harry and Garnet couldn't be more dissimilar in appearance, their backgrounds, or the way they think. Captain Harry Thompson is rather quiet, honorable, fair, comes from a working class background whose father was a wherryman,with "the heart of a hero (...) even though he does look so much like a bailiff’s enforcer." Harry has been at sea since he was 14, working his way up in ranks, and now, at 34, is captain of his first ship, the HMS Banshee. When Garnet sees Harry for the first time, he notes his "pugnacious face, and keeps his hair cropped to the scalp. It is darkly rich as walnut wood," and "[y]et it was his eyes I noticed then. A beautiful blend of brown and gold, like the colour of the stone called 'tiger’s eye.' They changed from shadow to light, from expression to expression."
While Harry is "a broader man than" Garnet, "[s]trongly built" and "[t]races of the lower deck lingered in that awful jacket he wore and in his hands, made muscular and large by manual work early in life" Garnet has “the long smooth lines of classical beauty", "[t]he winsome youth who tempted Apollo."
Harry's journal entries are without embellishment and honest to the point of being painful to read. It's clear from the first that he isn't willing to trade pleasure for loss of his hard-won reputation as he explains here to Garnet:
“It ca—it can’t happen!”
“But why?” He pouted like a spoiled child, and I wished I didn’t find it
“You need to ask?” They’ll pillory us and pelt us with excrement.
They’ll mock and laugh and whisper. They’ll take away the twenty
years of my life I spent working for this: my rank, my ship, my duty,
my king and country. My pride.
First Lieutenant Garnet Littleton's roots are of the gentry. He is as extroverted as Harry is introverted. Garnet is all"gracious manners and good looks (...) well-bred courtesy and flair for the dramatic." He is flamboyant where Harry is restrained. Garnet's journal entries are brimming with humor and far more elaborate than Harry's. Seeing Garnet through Harry's eyes for the first time, it's easy to understand why Harry declares that “[t]he voyage had only just begun and already I was doomed.”
"Braced, his long fingers curled over the back of the chair, the fall of
his frock coat devastatingly elegant, he stood like the Archangel
Gabriel before Mary. And his beauty was such that had he looked at
me and said, like an angel, “Do not be afraid,” I would have had to
thank him for the needful reassurance."
Harry, despite outward appearances, does "feel the thunderbolt of Jove" as Garnet so poetically puts it, but he avoids, resists, and represses any attraction to Garnet, fearing "disgrace" and death.
"Give me but a friend and a glass, boys,
I’ll show you what ’tis to be gay;
I’ll not care a fig for a lass, boys,
Nor love my brisk youth away.
Give me but an honest fellow
That’s pleasantest when he is mellow
We’ll live twenty-four hours a day."
The drinking song above was not just a unique introduction to Garnet but it also showed a stark contrast between how Harry and Garnet view their sexuality. The song was Garnet's invitation, to see whom he might lure with his bait, and Harry did not bite. At least not outwardly. Where Garnet is unashamed and much freer regarding his sexuality, Harry conceals and represses his. Sexual liaisons have been a game to Garnet in the past, made all the better with a little risk for added flavor. But it is more than a game this time, and Garnet is hurt by Harry's rejection.
Harry and Garnet weather (sorry!) storms at sea, typhus, convicts taking over the ship and then end up stranded on a secluded island for eight months. Of course, their differences are never more apparent than how each sees the island. Garnet, growing more depressed each day, finally tells Harry: "I miss other people, Harry. I am . . . sorry, but much as I love you, you cannot be a sufficient replacement for all civilized society.” For Harry, Ardent Isle has given him the luxury of freedom. " I’ve been free to be myself for the first time in my life. You and I, it’s the first honest thing I’ve ever done. And that’s because this place has given me the freedom to do it.” A little sigh of amusement mingled with melancholy. “Your prison is my refuge.”
The writing on "Blessed Isle" is just simply superb, beautiful beyond description, and I gobbled it up like a greedy child. There were passages that read so clear, so tangible, that it felt like the words were laid out as carefully and aesthetically as an artist chooses the correct shade of paint or a sculptor with a chisel shaping a piece of cold hard stone into something kinetic. Here are just a few examples:
1. When Harry takes the wheel for the first time:
The spray tangled like silver lace about the yellow-haired, screaming
woman of Banshee’s figurehead. The wind strengthened and the
ropes of her rigging creaked with accustomed strain.
2. When Garnet is awakened at six bells by the first storm:
The sails fluttered at the edges with a sound like giant hands clapping.
The fore course blew out aback.
3. The Banshee setting anchor at “Ilha das Cobras not far from Saint Sebastian, the great city of Rio de Janeiro.”
The sky curved like hammered gold above, and across it flew, cawing
like crows, a flight of birds so blue they looked like little machines of
enamel and brass, too vivid for life. The wind smelled of rank swamps
and green, growing things, smoke and sewage and fish.
4. Washing up on Blessed Isle:
Beyond him, the sun shone like adamant on a lagoon the unnatural,
iridescent blue of a peacock feather’s eye.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I began Blessed Isle, but it certainly didn't take long for me to realize what a gem it is. Its "message in a bottle, cast out into the seas of time" is indeed a wonderful story of "fidelity", "love and long-suffering sacrifice, and joy."