My big read

8th August 2003 at 01:00
Continuing our dip into the BBC's Big Read top 100 books, Victoria Neumark revels in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island

The ending has to be read aloud: "Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts or start upright in bed with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears, 'Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!'"

Everyone knows Treasure Island is a romance of pirates and the sea. But few people know that Stevenson invented pirates as we know them. He invented walking the plank and going down to Davy Jones's Locker. The story, which moves at a rollicking pace, is set in a place that never was. But the underlying tale is about the pain of loving someone bad.

When Stevenson wrote Treasure Island in the early 1880s, he was newly married to his difficult, fascinating wife, Fanny Osborne. After a childhood in bed with tuberculosis, reading, Stevenson was more in tune than most writers with what he termed the "nameless longings of the reader" - for adventure, desire, experience.

Treasure Island pulsates with its author's passion for life, his preternatural sensitivity to colour, smell, sound - and fear. Jim Hawkins, its stowaway hero, scuttles between dastardly pirates and lawful privateers, pulled one way by his honest upbringing and the other by "the old romance". Either way, he is always afraid. And always, like his creator, in love.

While RLS, as he was known, fell in love with Fanny, Jim is fascinated by Long John Silver. And so are we. The story turns on our tenterhooks, waiting for Jim to make the right decision. He does, and good, or at least the law, triumphs. But a sense of loss pervades the narrative. All the beauty, charm and largeness of life are centred around the devilish figure of Silver, who must be renounced. So we close the book a bit more grown-up, a bit less alive.

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