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Rites of Passage

by William Golding

Kirkus A different sort of Golding novel--at least until his familiar themes rise all too clearly (and rather incongruously) in the last chapters. The book is the early-1800s shipboard journal of Edmund Talbot, ""a young gentleman going to assist the governor in the administration of one of HIS Majesty's colonies!"" And, as the decrepit wooden ship heads slowly toward New Zealand, Edmund's diary--addressed to his unnamed but famously influential mentor back in England--tells us something of his fellow travelers (an obsequious parson, the hating captain, an aging belle, a freethinking pamphleteer, officers and emigrants) but more about Edmund himself: he's a well-meaning snob, peevish and pettish, full of allusions to Plato (in the original), fatuously obsessed with developing the ""political"" arts (flattery, manipulation), comically intent on controlling his seasickness and learning to ""speak Tarpaulin!"" (sailor lingo). So for a while it seems as if Golding is up to no more than a deft portrait of a decent yet hopeless aristocrat--especially when Edmund dabbles in slapstick cabin sex (""My sword was in my hand and I boarded her! . . . The bookshelf tilted. Moll Flanders lay open on the deck, Gil Blas fell on her. . .""). But then Colley, the dreadful parson, begins acting quite bizarrely: dressing in sacramental robes, appearing drunk and incontinent, then taking to his bed--apparently, mysteriously catatonic. So the question of Edmund's proper behavior in this situation soon becomes central: a low-born officer urges him to visit the scorned clergyman (""You have exercised the privileges of your position. I am asking you to shoulder its responsibilities""); Edmund even attempts to persuade the tyrannical captain to help Colley (whom the captain detests). And this strange matter of responsibility is an interestingly fine-pointed one, intersecting nicely with Edmund's increasing awareness of his tunnel-visioned class-consciousness. But Golding then ditches these subtleties for a sudden dose of religious madness and sexual obsession in parallel (a Golding hallmark): Edmund learns (from a hysterical confession written by the parson just before catatonia came on) that Colley was deranged, that his downfall came because of taunting by the crew, because of his own surrender to homosexual lust: ""Colley committed the fellatio that the poor fool was to die of when he remembered it."" Presumably this revelation (that ""Men can die of shame"") is the culmination of Edmund's humanizing rite of passage. In fact, however, it seems only a melodramatic device here, destroying the delicate tensions that have gone before. And one ends up distracted from (and not quite believing in) Edmund's supposed transformation. An imperfect construct, then, with those odd, ultimately awkward shifts of tone--but much of it is beautifully poised between comedy and dread, and nearly all of it is splendidly, elegantly phrased. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.