The Secret Life of James Cook.
Firstly, I should declare an interest in this book. A few years ago I gave a talk on Cook at a library in Auckland, after which a man approached me and said he had started writing a novel about Cook. It was Graeme Lay, whose name I already knew from short stories he had written. I agreed to read and vet some early chapters he had already produced, and for a few months we corresponded. Suddenly he stopped and I thought he must have given up. Then a year or so later the finished novel appeared.
James Cook has rarely appeared in works of fiction; a few novels, some poetry and a few plays do not add up to very much considering his exploits and continuing fame.1 This situation can partly be explained by the fact that much of the eleven year period from 1768 to 1779 (the period that interests most people) is so well documented that it allows little scope for works of fiction based on him to be written. The few novels that have appeared have added little and are mostly quite forgettable.
Difficulties immediately arise as most, if not all, incidents during the voyages have been described, often in detail, allowing few opportunities for the novelist’s imagination. Few time gaps exist that allow the invention of extra incidents that might add further excitement or drama. A novelist attempting to use Cook is left to elaborate matters by creating dialogue between people that show the relationships and sometimes help to explain how incidents arose.
Of course, the published narrative was the official, censored version, as interpreted by Cook and his officers, and was written to show them in the best light. A novelist could suggest that events might have happened differently and, for sinister reasons, been kept quiet by Cook. They could also portray friction or even animosity between men on board to enliven matters.
Graeme Lay’s work is the first of at least two novels he has planned around Cook’s life. This book covers Cook from boyhood in Great Ayton to the end of the Endeavour voyage. How has he fared?
On the whole it is an easy, entertaining read but it is not a book likely to be a prize winner. And I would be surprised if members of the Captain Cook Society learn anything new as it draws wholly from existing works. Mostly, Lay has reconstructed events and elaborated them by adding dialogue. He has then interspersed letters purporting to have been written by Cook to family and friends that describe matters in more general terms. Finally, he has created a “lost” journal that Cook wrote for his wife in which he included more intimate and private thoughts that he would have not wanted the Admiralty to see. As devices, both the letters and the journal work very well.
Lay has spiced things up a little with a sex scene and by suggesting tensions between Cook and Joseph Banks (through their different backgrounds) and with John Gore (portrayed as resentful at not having been given charge of Endeavour). These are acceptable as author’s licence. What spoils the book for me are the many errors, most of which should have been picked up by an editor. For example, the stream in Staithes is Roxby Beck and not River Beck; the footpath where Cook encounters Michela would have existed but the name “Cleveland Way” was a twentieth century construct. The incident at Quebec where a ship’s master was nearly captured by Indians happened to Thomas Bisset (who gets no mention in the book) and not to Cook. Lay suggests William Parker was a barely adequate master’s mate, which was far from the case, while “Jimmy” Griffiths was not incapacitated in 1764 at Unfortunate Cove but continued to serve with Cook for three more years.
It is a reasonable book, therefore, but nothing special. Should the sequel proceed I hope it is vetted better before being published.
- Some of the novels are:
Heretunga Pat Baker –Behind the Tatooed Face. 1975.
Godfrey Blunden – Charco Harbour. 1968.
Marele Day – Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain's Wife. 2002.
Paul Rodgers – To kill a God. 1987.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 46, volume 36, number 3 (2013).