Friday, February 22, 2008

book review - Fire Down Below


This is the last book in the trilogy by William Golding that charts the passage across the oceans from England to Australia of Edmund Talbot. The young man is propped up by a relationship with a wealthy and politically influential godfather. By this last book he has managed to set himself apart from almost everyone because of his often naive but firmly held views.

His love for a girl he met for an afternoon and evening in the second book manages to irate his closest friends and annoy his enemies, with Mr Benet in particular badgered by Talbot for details on the girl he had shared a ship with.

Most of the focus of the narrative is on the debate between the first lieutenant Summers and the Captain and his favourite Benet about how to best fix the sail. Benet argues that it can be strengthened and repaired by driving red-hot bolts through the base. Summers believes that this ‘fire down below’ will lead to destruction.

But there is also the question of the ‘fire down below’ in Talbot’s heart when he is challenged by utopian Mr Prettiman to turn his back on responsibility and class and follow his heart. Talbot cannot do it but he develops a friendship with the anti-establishmentarian that confuses Summers and some of the other passengers.

All the way through this trilogy it has been hard to see how it could end. It seems to be a tale of growing up with the privileged Talbot coming into contact with members of the lower orders and their brutality – the destruction of Colley in Book one Rites of Passage – and the political views of extremists.

Talbot is also exposed to extremes of love and fear and witnesses the suicide of his steward and the demise of his friend Summers along with the destruction of the ship.

As a cross section of society the ship manages to illustrate the dangers of standing out against the majority. It costs Colley his life and at points seems to cost Talbot company as he is shunned by various sections of the ship.

Once he lands at Australia at the conclusion of his voyage he receives news that his godfather has died. He is then treated to the fickle nature of success with everyone around him treating him with indifference. Even when Marion turns up she is advises by her mentor Lady Somerset not to pursue a relationship with a man that will not be able to provide for her.

But news arrives that reveals that the godfather has left his money and his seat in the houses of parliament to Talbot and those fickle friends return. The tragedy is that he cannot tell his friend Captain Summers, who hew helped get promotion, because the fire down below finally consumes the Captain and his ship.

For Talbot the fire down below turns out to be his love but for other characters those words meant different things, both literal and metaphorical. Golding manages to spin a complete tale across this trilogy of a voyage through extreme heat, horrendous storms and into ice fields and although it is pleasant enough reading it you certainly would not have wanted to step into Talbot’s shoes and boarded that ship with him.

Version read – Faber & Faber paperback

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