Book Review: Secret Life Of James Cook

By Jim Eagles

1 comment
Author Graeme Lay. Photo / Richard Robinson
Author Graeme Lay. Photo / Richard Robinson

Secret Life Of James Cook by Graeme Lay
(HarperCollins $36.99)

A few years ago I visited the charming English port town of Whitby and was intrigued to discover its crucial role in the lives of two very different men whose names continue to echo down the centuries: Count Dracula and Captain James Cook.

It was in Whitby that Cook began to acquire the maritime skills that made him arguably the greatest navigator of all time. And it was there that Bram Stoker wrote - and largely set - the book that introduced the world to its most famous vampire.

Equally intriguing is the manner in which our knowledge of those two Whitby characters has diverged.

These days we are extremely well informed about the private lives of vampires.

But of the great explorer we still know little beyond his dry reports, naval records and log entries.

What drove this farm lad, whose early career was as a shop assistant, to achieve such perfection as seaman, cartographer and captain? How did he relate to the wife and children of whom he saw so little? For all the countless books written about Cook, his inner life remains a blank about which we can only speculate.

Graeme Lay has sought to fill this gap by writing a fictional biography running from Cook's birth in 1728 to the end of the first great voyage of exploration in 1771 (a second novel will cover the remaining eight years). In particular, he invents a secret journal the explorer kept during his voyage solely for the eyes of his wife, Elizabeth.

The resultant novel consists of an eye-of-God narrative broken up by regular excerpts from Cook's actual log and the fictional secret one (a format, as it happens, quite similar to that of Stoker's Count).

It's extremely easy to read and, because it sticks closely to the factual framework of Cook's career, offers a more comfortable introduction to his remarkable life than any of the myriad biographies.

The fictional character also provides some glimpses of what might have gone on behind the marble facade of the real one: a man driven by a burning desire to prove himself better than any arrogant aristocratic naval officer or well-connected amateur scientist like Joseph Banks; clearly fond of his wife and children, but not enough to let it interfere with any opportunities for advancement.

Lay's character has a voice which accords well with what little is known from Cook's few surviving personal communications. And that is both a strength and a weakness: a strength, because it is very believable; a weakness, because he seems a little lacking in ... passion.

It is, for instance, hard to see this Cook getting sufficiently worked up to earn the comment from the young officer James Trevenen - a great admirer - that, "Of course I had a heiva of the old boy," explaining that a heiva was "the name of the dances of the Southern Islanders, which bore so great a resemblance to the violent motions and stampings on the deck of Capt Cook in the paroxysms of passion into which he often threw himself on the slightest occasion that they were universally known by the same name ..."

But probably I'm being unfair. Lay is not writing about make-believe vampires but a real person. If it's a good read and it rings true then what more can anyone ask?

In any case, I look forward to the sequel - maybe with a few heiva thrown in.

- NZ Herald

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