This is one from the guilty pile and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself for striking it off the list. I really liked McKenzie’s first book ‘The Chapel at the Edge of the World’ (heavily featuring the Italian Chapel in Orkney) so had high hopes for book number two which also has an Orkney connection but goes back a little further than the second world war.
‘The Captain’s Wife’ is a multi stranded tale which follows the life of John Fullerton, Orkney boy and eventual pirate, and also Mary Jones a young woman sent off into the world to marry Captain Jones, a much older and previously married man who needs a male heir to secure his uncles estate. Unfortunately Captain Jones (as well as being a laudanum addicted drunk with a violent streak) seems incapable of fathering his own child so he gets his best friend and possible lover Robert to do the job for him. From there on in it gets complicated.
John’s story is also complicated, the illegitimate son of a poor crofter who acknowledges him enough to give him a good beating when he asks for more for his mother. He seems to be mostly motivated by greed (with a good dose of paranoia) his fate is set when he joins ship after running away from home. He’s picked up by an older man who wants him for his body rather than his sailing skills, but from him John develops a taste for finer living and eventually a ship of his own. Merchant life doesn’t provide enough money and he turns first to smuggling and eventually as mentioned to piracy, he also turns to brandy and gambling – from where – well it gets complicated.
As long as I was reading I was totally caught up in the tale but as soon as I put the book down I found myself picking holes in it. I think McKenzie is a gifted story teller – otherwise I wouldn’t have finished this book, never mind found myself enjoying it, but I also think, and hope that she’s got much better to come. There were just too many holes in ‘The Captain’s Wife’, little things that didn’t quite add up in the plot; descriptions of emotions that felt wrong for the eighteenth century setting and possibly too many drunken gay sailors. I was doubtful about Mary’s life on board ship as well though cursory research suggests that this was quite common, but this brings problems of its own because apart from Mary it’s an exclusively male world.
In fact it needs to be an entirely male world to make sense of all the same sex relationships – the suggestion initially seems to be that a boy is a necessary adjunct to an officer’s life and that the boy will get used to it in return for better food, better clothes, and a better bed (the boys in the book seem to be happy enough with the terms). Still the male relationships are entirely convincing, which is a bit more than I felt about the ménage a trois between Mary, her husband, and their lover.
I ended up feeling quite lukewarm about ‘The Captain’s Wife’ but the Scottish one who read it almost as soon as I got it really enjoyed it although he’s failed to take to ‘The Chapel at the Edge of the World’ so it seems there’s no accounting for taste and if you can suspend your disbelief sufficiently it’s certainly a gripping yarn.