Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: The Monsters of St. Helena by Brook Hansen

Title: The Monsters of St. Helena
Author: Brook Hansen
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Farrar Giroux & Straus
Published: 2002
Pages: 320

Rating: 3 out of 10

I love the story idea of one of the most powerful men in history, Napoleon Bonaparte, being exiled to a tiny island filled with typical small-town "country folk." I have read an account of Napoleon's time on St. Helena's as seen through the eyes of Betsy Balcombe, but not one told by Napoleon himself, as I had been led to believe this book would be.

Well actually, the narrator for this story is... no one. The main character is decidedly no one. The focus is on no one. It's just one of those 'nothing' books.

When I opened the book, there was a very long list of every single character that was to be featured in the story, small or large. At first I thought to myself that this would be useful if the book were non-fiction. But on further reflection, I realized it was pretty useless. Hansen can't exactly list every single person on the island, so he is forced to choose only individuals he will feature in his story. Which is a lot. The list went on and on for three entire pages. I was already growing wary of this book, and I hadn't even technically started it yet. I was beginning to think that this would just end up being a tedious relaying of facts.

I was a bit confused when I read the beginning words: "Sixty million years ago, the plates beneath what we now think of as the South Atlantic Ocean buckled slightly..."
So now we are in pre-historic times?
The first chapter goes on to tell about how the island of St. Helena was first formed as a volcano, and died out over millions of years, and so on. It read like a history book, and while I always appreciate getting background information on a setting, this seemed a bit over the top.
Funnily enough though, I liked this part of the book (including telling us a little about the island's first inhabitant, a marooned sailor), much more than the actual story. At least this part was interesting in a meticulously detailed, factual sort of way.
The rest of the book was anything but.

Once we actually begin the story that has to do with Napoleon, we are first introduced to Betsy Balcombe and her family, as they first hear the news that Napoleon has been ordered to come to their island. After that, the book meanders along, relating the friendship between Betsy and Napoleon, the attitude of the local islanders toward their new 'guests,' the removal of Napoleon from the Balcombe's home to Longwood, and other such necessary plot points.

Hansen related all these events without interest. I wouldn't have been surprised to read in a conclusive author's note or something "I hated writing this book, and anything to do with Napoleon or history bores me..." Because seriously, that is how the book is written, like a long paper a tired student was forced to write, when he would much rather have been doing something else.

I found it odd how Betsy is portrayed, as so very young. She was 14 when Napoleon came the island, which in her time would have been old enough to marry and begin running a household. However, I kept picturing her as around 7 or 8, because that is how she is written. Perhaps even younger, at times.
I also found this a bit creepy, because in the other book I read about Napoleon's exile, Betsy and Napoleon were portrayed as having a sensual sort of chemistry.
This book doesn't go that far, but in later years, when Betsy would go to Longwood to visit Napoleon, there were many speculations that Betsy and Napoleon were having an affair.
So Betsy being cut down to act half her age here seemed very strange to me.
Her sister is a few years older (I cannot remember the exact number, probably 16 or 17) and she acted very young, as well.

This book was pretty boring. There is absolutely no focus to it. What is it even about? Not, as I would have thought, Napoleon's exile. It just isn't central enough. Nothing is.
There are a great many pages devoted to the building of a chicken coop. We see it being planned, the wood being gathered, wires deliberated over, the selection of hens... Really. And no, nothing significant about the chicken coop ever comes up in the the story, besides the small fact that Napoleon eats some of the chickens and their eggs. Well, obviously! The book kept going back to the chicken coop over and over.

At a few points, the book switched its setting entirely (to hundreds of years before, in England) to follow the story of Fernando Lopez, the first inhabitant of St. Helena's Island. These were written in italic (random?) and in the style of a play (even more random!). Some of the scenes didn't even feature Fernando himself, just people gossiping about him.

I can't believe that any author could read over this book and actually believe it to be satisfactory. In my opinion, he should have stuck to the early story of the island's beginnings and the marooned man who first lived there, surviving off the land on a deserted island. It was far more interesting... or maybe that was just in comparison to how dull the rest of the book was.