Creativity fills in historical gaps

By Jim Eagles

Graeme Lay continues to map Cook's progress south. Photo / Richard Robinson
Graeme Lay continues to map Cook's progress south. Photo / Richard Robinson

Graeme Lay's sequel to his best-selling novel, The Secret Life of James Cook, wisely follows the same approach as before.

Once again the narrative describing Cook's three-year-long second voyage in search of the mythical Great Southern Continent fits largely within the framework of what is known, interspersed with excerpts from the actual log and passages from a fictional diary written for his wife Elizabeth. The result is an easy-to-read, highly believable account of one of the great voyages of exploration, in which he put more of the South Pacific on the map and made the first serious attempt to chart the Antarctic.

More to the point, it gives us further fictional insights into the thoughts and private life of one of the towering figures in New Zealand history about whose personality we know virtually nothing, partly because his widow destroyed all their private papers shortly before her death, leaving a gap that can be filled only by the imagination of a writer like Lay.

The Cook who emerges is not just the brilliant navigator we know from the official records, but also a loving family man, a benevolent dictator towards his crew (forcing them against their will to consume the fruit and vegetables that warded off scurvy, but turning a blind eye to their sexual peccadilloes), for his time remarkably sensitive towards the cultures he came in contact with, and human enough to conceive a dislike for his Prussian botanist Johann Forster and occasionally to let that show in acts of petty retribution.

If there's a quibble, it's over the emphasis in this volume on the anguish felt by James and Elizabeth at their prolonged separations, leading to him promising in the final sentence not to go away again. The reality is that such separations were the lot of every maritime family at the time and it was, after all, his voyaging that gave the Cooks a rather more comfortable life than would normally be enjoyed by the son of an agricultural labourer.

Still, if Cook did make such a promise, we know he didn't keep it. Lay has apparently already begun work on a third novel, about the ill-fated final voyage, in which we'll find his explanation of what lured Cook back to sea and why he lost his previously magic touch. It's a prospect to look forward to.

James Cook's New World by Graeme Lay (Fourth Estate $36.99)

- NZ Herald

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