The old master has us again in the palm of his hand. Patrick O'Brian, the octogenarian Anglo-Irish writer, has spun the 20th novel in his Aubrey-Maturin series, and a fine thing it is, gossamer in language, as always, and forceful in plot, character and action, as always. (And--perhaps--it is the final adventure for this globe-trotting duo, as rumors abound that this will be O'Brian's last novel.) The legion of his fans don't have to be told who O'Brian's characters are. For others, a brief introduction is in order. Jack Aubrey is a bluff English captain of a man-of-war in the royal navy during the Napoleonic wars. Stephen Maturin, a learned Catalan, is his friend, his ship's surgeon, a naturalist of no mean renown and a spy to boot for the English against the hated Napoleon. For 19 volumes they have sailed the oceans of the world, fighting the French and their allies, fighting the Americans in the War of 1812, fighting to preserve Great Britain's dominance of the seas. O'Brian's descriptions of the vast and powerful sea in all its moods and latitudes are as fine as any in the language; in their physicality, they remind you of Joseph Conrad. O'Brian takes us, intelligently and benignly, into a distant world and makes it come vibrantly alive.
THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS; By Wayne Johnston; Doubleday: 528 pp., $24.95
What is it about Newfoundland? A barren, wind-scoured rock, the island nonetheless seems to be endowed with rich emotional soil; like Ireland, it gives birth to the love-hate feelings that in turn produce literature. An inspired outsider, Annie Proulx, made it the setting of her most moving novel, "The Shipping News," and now an insider, Wayne Johnston, has captured some of the same magic in "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," a neo-Victorian saga of history, politics and thwarted love. Johnston renders his story with charm and in prose that, if not so quirkily brilliant as Proulx's, is capable of powerful effects. "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" is one of the year's best novels: serious and funny, uncompromisingly original yet accessible; it makes us feel at home in a place about as different from Los Angeles as could be.
VILLAGE OF A MILLION SPIRITS A Novel of the Treblinka Uprising; By Ian MacMillan; Steerforth Press: 262 pp., $24
This stunning novel about the 1943 uprising of prisoners at Treblinka is the work of Ian MacMillan, a writer who teaches at the University of Hawaii. Anyone who doubts that a work of literary art can sometimes come closer to the truth than the report of an eyewitness should read this novel.
In the same kind of imaginative leap that enabled Stephen Crane to render an amazingly vivid and truthful account of a Civil War that was over before he was born, MacMillan has envisioned the far harder-to-imagine world of the Nazi death camps. Some of the characters in this novel are based on real people. Most, however, are the extraordinarily lifelike creations of the novelist's imagination. Through their eyes, MacMillan provides a searing, multidimensional and unforgettable picture of hell on Earth. "Village of a Million Spirits" is the third novel that MacMillan has written on this daunting and heartbreaking subject. He has gone from strength to strength. This novel, despite the chaotic senselessness of the world it depicts, has a coherence and a unity that grow clearer as one reads on. Not the least of MacMillan's accomplishments is his writing: spare, deliberate, with a gravity of tone that befits the subject.
We live in an age when it's fashionable to harbor doubts about the reliability of texts. Everything is seen as capable of having been "fabricated." MacMillan's achievements in this novel are to affirm the truth of history against "revisionists" and to use imaginative art to render the horror with a vividness sometimes missing from factual accounts.
THE PECULIAR MEMORIES OF THOMAS PENMAN; By Bruce Robinson; The Overlook Press: 280 pp., $24.95
Among novels there is a standard adolescent coming-of-age story whose parameters are instantly familiar. They include a changing body and a sexual awakening; an appetite for forbidden substances; an embittering recognition of one's parents' hidden and fallible lives; and a slow and open slippery search for one's true self. Yet familiar though these elements may be in general, in their vivid particulars they can constellate a fresh and often compelling narrative, especially when they are handled with the kind of verve and affection deployed in Bruce Robinson's "The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman."
SOMEWHERE IN A DESERT; By Dominique Sigaud; Arcade: 128 pp., $22.95