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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Rites of Passage (1980) by William Golding


Book Review
Rites of Passage (1980)
 by William Golding

  Rites of Passage is book one of a "nautically themed" trilogy, collected as To the Ends of the Earth.  It won the Booker Prize the year it was released.  The other two books in the trilogy didn't make the 1001 Books list.  It's also relevant that William Golding won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Golding was not a particularly prolific author.  Lord of the Flies (1954) was his first published novel, and Rites of Passage, published a quarter century later is his tenth novel, giving him a rate of one novel every 2.5 years.   The fact that he only got two novels on the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books list tells me that he was already unfashionable a decade ago.   None of his novels have been added, even though it's been over two decades since his death in 1993, adequate time for a critical reappraisal.

  It's hard to write anything about Golding without discussing Lord of the Flies, which has to rank among the top ten literary debuts in the history of the English novel.  It's been a mainstay in school literature classes all over the world for over a half century.  The  term "Lord of the Flies" is now used as a short hand to describe plots ranging from high school relationship comedies to sci fi/action thrillers.  

  Rites of Passage takes place entirely on a ship making a lengthy voyage to Australia from England in the 19th century.  The narrator is a young gentleman, on his way to assume an administrative position in Van Dieman's land (modern Tasmania).   During the voyage, he becomes involved in the circumstances of another passenger, Reverend Colley.   Captain Anderson, commander of the vessel, maintains a strict anti-clerical stance that brings him into direct contact with Colley,  and it all ends poorly for Colley, leaving Talbot (the gentleman) to pick up the pieces...with surprising results.

  A reader looking for similarities between Lord of Flies and Rites of Passage might point to a timeless quality in his prose, both suitable for a mid 20th century reader and a character in the 19th century.   Like Lord of Flies, Rites of Passage explicitly grapples with themes related to the crumbling of morality that comes from groups of people operating outside of society.  Lord of Flies is of course a prime example of his entire genre, but Rites of Passage works along similar lines.

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