book review – Rites of Passage

If there is one thing most people know about William Golding it is about his ability to describe in words the moment when a crowd turns ugly and someone is destroyed either physically or mentally.

One of the things you remember about Lord of the Flies apart from the conch and the island home of the boys is the demise of Piggy who is bullied to his death. There is a similar figure here in the first part of the Pssage of the Sea trilogy with the parson Colley. He becomes the focus of the book but it takes a while to get there.

The story is told through the journal entries of Edmund Talbot who is going to Australia to take up some sort of government service and has connections with some powerful backers in the form of his godfather. Talbot joins the crew of on a ship that is sailing around not too long after nelson because we are still at war with the French. That would date it at around the early 19th century when it was still the age of sail and Britain ruled the waves.

The book settles down with Talbot becoming the eyes you see the world through with him meeting other passengers and importantly the captain. Because he enrages the captain, who likes passengers never to come near him, the naval warrior decides to exert his power over the crew by picking on the parson. The captain has a pathological hatred of the clergy believing himself to have been robbed out of his inheritance by one.

With the captain’s blessing the parson becomes an open target for abuse and things come to a head when he appears ramshackled and drunk on the deck and is led away to his cabin in disgrace. No one can tempt him out to talk and he slowly withers away refusing food and drink and dies on an evening when the captain has ironically invited some guests, including Talbot into his cabin for dinner.

The captain is forced to thaw because of the announcement of Talbot of his journal, which will be sent to his godfather, with the implied threat that the bullying will be revealed to a wider audience. The captain calls for agreement that Colley died from a low fever and Talbot is forced to go along with that conclusion.

But the last third of the book is taken up with Talbot printed ad verbatim the words that Colley had put down in a letter to his sister. When compared to the facts that start to emerge from the inquest following the death of the parson it creates a heart-rendering account through the eyes of an innocent bullying victim.

Colley is naïve but that is his only real fault along with maybe his dogged persistence to serve the Lord by demanding services are held. He is humiliated by the sailors and the other passengers and is finally exploited when drunk and a sailor performs an act of oral sex on him, the act the forces him to do die with shame.

This is powerful writing and for anyone who has ever considered joining in when someone is being taunted and humiliated then this should make them think long and hard about what it does to the victim of the bullying.

Version read – Faber & Faber paperback

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