Mysterious writers and women at sea.
Publisher: SilverWood Books
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 3rd October 2013
Ben, a struggling writer in the late 1700s, joins other struggling writers for dinners at the house of a London publisher – a publisher he and his fellow diners hope to find favour with. When a book about a voyage to a new land is published anonymously, Ben jumps at the chance to discover the author’s identity and find that illusive favour. He believes he has a head’s start, having met a woman at the theatre who dismissed the tale of Cook’s voyage, but it’s not going to be that easy.
To The Fair Land is a sometimes rushed but informative story that includes the details of the fictional naval voyage along with its narrative of Ben’s search. Told from various viewpoints and including the female travellers that history would prefer we forgot, it offers a look at society in general too.
This look at society is in a way puzzling at times. The puzzle comes in the form of the main character, Ben, who does very little to recommend himself to the reader. Mainly he is simply an impulsive, thoughtless man, who is, although not particularly inviting, fair enough as a character – but there is a side to him that is incredibly historical, and however apt this may be it does make reading the book difficult. It will largely depend on the reader’s individual take on Boyce’s reasoning for Ben’s nature as to whether or not they are happy to read about him. Ben is prejudiced against women. He brushes off their opinions even when it is obvious these opinions are of importance, and goes as far as calling a calm, good, woman a hyena. This prejudice is not explained by Boyce and therein lies the issue – is this a commentary? Is this a device to show the reader the treatment of women in the era? Or is it just the way the character was written? The issue with Ben is of course that this is a book written in the 21st century for 21st century readers, and readers in our current time expect more detail and reasoning behind such views, whether commentary or otherwise.
For the most part the book reads as rushed, often to the point of confusion. In addition to Ben’s nature, there is rarely ample reasoning for certain turns in the plot. The lack of these things creates a situation where people seem fickle when they are surely not, and it can difficult to really feel for the characters.
In general the book could have done with more information on the characters (there is some info-dumping about minor characters) – Boyce has spent a great deal of time on the history so the potential was there for the characters. The history is fascinating, however. The information about the navy, the thinking behind the voyages, and the inclusion of other ships that set sale with women on board (there is a nod to Jeanne Baret, for example), is well presented. And, albeit somewhat fictional, the story-within-the-story of the exploration of the ‘fair land’ is engrossing.
The book employs changes in viewpoints during chapters which have the potential to throw the reader off course, though as they read, in many ways, as a compilation of reports and opinions, they would likely work if provided their own sections. On the subject of paragraphs, there are some editing errors in the book that require a mention because they are of the mixing up names and places sort.
Yet there is one character who has been written superbly. Sarah, in her ‘present’ form but most especially during the section which tells of her past, is a wonderful – if discomforting – character and very memorable. Indeed the addition of Sarah brings the question of Ben’s place as a device for commentary into the fore. If Sarah is so wonderfully written, then it does suggest that Boyce had a plan with Ben.
The writing itself is readable. Rushed narrative or not, the words flow quickly. And the account of the voyage is given slowly with much attention to detail. It is difficult not to get lost in the paradise Boyce imagines. The best part of this section is that it goes on for a very long while, and, due to the era in which it is set, there is a lot of harmony between the cultures that come together, making it a nice reprieve from the cruel white supremacy that soon followed.
Lastly, it should be noted that there is a certain sort of relationship in the book that may cause some discomfort, however Boyce has her cast of characters deal with it in a way you would expect of the era and situation.
To The Fair Land has its bad points and its good points. It may not work for everyone, and some readers may feel the scales tip in favour of the negative, but overall this is an aptly fair début.
I received this book for review from the author following correspondence with the publisher.
October 4, 2013, 7:19 am
Huh. I am not feeling any reason to look into this book. Especially if you’re saying that the sexism is treated so casually.