Rites of Passage by William Golding #Bookerprize

rites of passage2The year is 1815. Like thousands of other young men looking to start a new life, Edmund Talbot boards a ship destined for a British colony. With the help of his godfather patron he is to join the staff of the Governor’s office in Australia. To amuse his godfather he begins to write a journal. In it he records his impressions of the ship which is a creaking and ancient former warship, not affording the naive young man anything like the standard of accommodation he was expecting (his ‘cabin’ is more akin to a hutch).

But this doesn’t curb the enthusiasm of this young dandy. He may be a novice in maritime life but Edmund is an enthusiastic student who wants to learn the ways of the men onboard.

“I have laid my Marine Dictionary by my pillow; for I am determined to speak the tarry language as perfectly as any of these rolling fellows”

With wit and energy he describes daily life aboard ship, the disdain he feels for the bad manners of his fellow passengers (who are generally beneath him in the social hierarchy) and the mounting tensions between officers, crew and passengers. His observations are mixed with salacious gossip and details of his own sexual encounters.

His curiosity is awakened by one passenger in particular, the Reverend James Colley, who, for reasons we don’t discover until he end of the novel, is despised by the captain. Edmund initially tries to support the parson but is ultimately repelled by Colley’s over-eager attempts at friendship. Colley also falls foul of the sailors who, in the seclusion of the fo’castle, exact their revenge, delivering the parson into a  “hell of degradation” involving a crossing-the-line ceremony. The shame Colley feels at his treatment is so deep he never recovers.

And it’s at this point that the light and frothy tone of the novel suddenly changes and it becomes a much more disturbing narrative. Golding, it’s clear, has led his readers up and down the garden path in the first half of the book. Talbot’s journal paints the parson as an absurd man with a hacked-about haircut and ill-fitting wig at whom we are invited to laugh.  It’s hard not to when Colley is seen dead drunk, naked, “his mind only lightly linked to his understanding”, crying out “joy, joy, joy” and attempting to bless his fellow passengers.

But after his shaming, we get to read Colley’s own journal and slowly this young parson is transformed into a sympathetic, sweet-natured man. His wild haircut is explained by the fact that his sister tried to cut it one last time before he boarded ship and they parted, but was crying so much that she could hardly see what she was doing. All the laughs we’ve had at Colley’s expense now seem hollow as we learn about the many other cruelties that Edmund failed to notice or failed to understand.

By the end of the novel, we like Edmund, feel complicit in Colley’s downfall.  It was his own aggressive behaviour towards Colley which made others on board feel it was ok to bully this man. The truth of his death however never comes to light because the captain’s inquiry is a whitewash and Edmund is so compromised he’s left with no option but to hide the facts from Colley’s sister.  The boy who ends the novel is a far wiser, more mature creature than the one we encounter at the beginning.

With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.

There were many enjoyable features of this novel. Firstly Golding’s use of the two journals disrupted the trajectory of the novel and turned what could otherwise have been a pleasant, if unremarkable, tale about a young snob, into a fascinating narrative. Everything about this book feels authentic, from the language and the events described to the choice of typeface with cracked edge letters and slightly rough paper  in my edition.  And then we get the themes of shame and class consciousness which undercut the comedy of Edmund’s naivety. Golding shows that even within the confines of a ship that “streams with sea water, rain and other fouler liquids’, the British class structure prevails. For all the humour of the first half of the book, Rites of Passage is a quite disquieting novel.

Footnotes

The Novel: Rites of Passage is the first title in the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy —Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989.  They are all set on a British former man-of-war ship that is transporting migrants to Australia in the early 19th century. Rites of Passage won the Booker Prize in 1980 against fierce competition from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers.

The Author: William Golding is best known as the author of  the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

William Golding plaqueWhy I read this book: It won the Booker Prize so naturally I had to read this as part of my project. I did so during a short break in the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire unaware that I was staying just a few hundred yards from the school where Golding taught between 1939 and 1961. I made the connection when walking past the school and noticed this plaque.

Other reviews

Lisa of ANZ LitLovers  review is on the Complete Booker website here 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 21, 2017, in Book Reviews, Booker Prize, United Kingdom and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. LOL Karen we’re all doing it to each other. More and more I am relying on Goodreads to remind me who recommended a book to me, if I didn’t note it there I couldn’t keep track of it at all.

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    • I’m following your practice on this page though can’t seem to figure out how to add this info when I add a book to my Goodreads account

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      • Once you’ve added it to your books, open up what GR calls your review (even though you haven’t read it yet!)
        In a box underneath where you’d put your review there’s a box for your private notes that only you can see. That’s where I put the URL of the review that’s inspired me to get the book. There’s also a space to type in who recommended it to you.
        But sometimes, when you open the review these extra options aren’t visible so you have to click ‘see more’ or ‘more options’ or whatever it is.
        I hope that helps:)

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  2. I’ve read this and Close Quarters – both great – but for some reason never finished the trilogy. I think my favourite Golding is probably Darkness Visible. The Spire is one I haven’t read but it sounds like I should.

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  3. I have wondered about reading this one and the others in the series so I’m glad that you’ve given the ‘thumbs up’. I read The Spire earlier this year but wasn’t totally enamoured by it but since reading it I’m wondering whether I should give it another go as I was a little surprised at the time by the style he adopted.

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  4. Hmm. I don’t think I like William Golding, though I admit this sounds much more interesting than I thought it might be. Back when I was reading all the Booker books (abandoned now) I never managed to get round to this. I have read only two Golding novels previously, one I utterly loathed (go on guess!) and one I mildly disliked and was bored by. Has he a thing about cruelty do you think?

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  5. I didn’t know Golding wrote other books. I read Lord of the Flies in middle school. I just love stories that take place on water/involve navigation. I’ll definitely give this one a go soon. I didn’t even know Golding won the Nobel for literature. Wow! How cool!

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    • He wrote another excellent one called The Spire which is about one man’s passion to build a 400 foot spire on top of a cathedral. So if you like Rites of Passage that might be another one to try Fariba

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  6. Isn’t this book the most wonderful surprise! I’d only ever read Lord of the Flies, and I was so delighted to discover this one, via the Read the Booker project, just like you. It was made into a super TV series, BTW, starring Benedict Whathisname when he was young and not gushingly heartthrob famous.
    I have a rather naïve, spoiler-ridden review of this from before my blogging days at The Complete Booker (http://completebooker.blogspot.com.au/2009/01/lisa-hill-1980-rites-of-passage-by.html) where I see there is a typo which I would fix if I could only remember my password to get into the site…
    PS Golding is a more versatile writer than I had ever suspected. I have also read his Pincher Martin which is weird but terrific.

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  7. Thanks for this. Now high priority on my to-read list.

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    • glad to add to someone else’s reading list for a change – its usually me that ends up with more books than I can handle after I read other peoples posts and recommendations.

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