Rites of Passage by William Golding (not to be confused with William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride) is yet another Booker-winning novel set on the water. I was excited to read this first Booker winner by an author with whom I was already familiar: like everyone else in the English-speaking world, I’d read The Lord of the Flies; and because I liked that so much, I read Pincher Martin.
Rites mixes elements of the two. Like Flies, it creates a microcosm in isolation, this time on board a ship bound for Australia, rather than an island, and populated by adults, not children. There is a member of the nobility, who narrates most of the book in the form of a long journal/letter to his godfather and sponsor. There is a parson, an artist, a freethinker, a surly Captain, and various other gentry and commoners. A large part of the book seems dedicated to making us understand that class and roles are usually meaningless. Our noble narrator turns out to be a cad, for instance, not above raping a woman he believes to be a prostitute, without even paying her. He and his “gentlemen” friends discuss her in a most ungentlemanly manner.
But like Martin, this book is also a long, deluded monologue with a twist at the end. I won’t spoil either book for you. Suffice it to say that when you read the parson’s account, and you notice him lingering on the glorious beauty of the sailors around him…that’s a hint.
It’s a meditation on class, justice, and shame, written quite wittily, showing one crucial event from two drastically different points of view. Rites is the first of a trilogy called To the Ends of the Earth that was made into a British miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Perhaps worth watching, or reading the other two.