I have very slowly trodden my way through this story by Dutch writer Anna Enquist, but at some points, I seriously considered leaving it. Not because it was bad, not because it was uninteresting, but it was just too much for me. Too much heart-wrenching sadness.
This is an historical novel where the main character and narrator is Elizabeth Cook, wife of the famous Captain Cook who discovered many Pacific islands. Don’t imagine that this is the typical male adventure book: storms, sailor anecdotes full of gory details, hardships and glory and Tahitian women carrying flowers to the beach… No, the oblique choice of narrator leads to an intimate, day-to-day story of a 18C woman at home, living a sort of long-distance relationship with a mostly absent husband. It is full of historical details of daily chores, of rearing children, of giving birth and dying in 18C London. The novel is closely based on what is left to know of the Cook family, that means, not much. It is interwoven with information about the Cook travels and discoveries, but just as her husband can’t seem to stay on land without soon feeling frustrated and inappropriate, she doesn’t have any particular interest in the sea and the unknown world left to be discovered. In fact, she herself hates traveling of any kind.
She would like to have a husband at home with her, helping her raise the children, but she is aware of her husband’s unhappiness and can’t really say anything to keep him on land. These 2 people love each other, but Cook also loves the sea, and eventually Elizabeth is condemned to always come second. When left alone (Cook’s trips were usually 3 years long!), she tries to find a balance and live while waiting: she alternates between courage (giving birth and coping on her own), anger against him for abandoning her, strength from being free and self-sufficient, doubts and fears. Torn between the man she intimately knows (with his weaknesses and failures as a husband and father) and the glorified hero that everybody else wants to tell her about, she has to fight to keep the husband figure from being absorbed by the public figure. Anna Enquist is a professional psychologist and you can see how finely drawn this female portrait is.
I also think that she has put a lot of thoughts to find the right voice for her character. Never does Elizabeth seem too modern for her times. It was also a time where wives were supposed to obey their husband and be satisfied even if they didn’t fully understand them. She is a woman of little education and can’t understand why the men get enthusiastic over scientific discoveries, conquests, new territories, and are ready to risk their lives for this. Contrary to them, her life is an inner journey filled with emotions, routine and discovering herself and her husband little by little.
And this inner journey is steep and cruel indeed. I remember a post by Litlove that in novels, dead children were a deal breaker for her. But Elizabeth Cook’s life is blown apart by losses. A young daughter in infancy, then her husband, then all her remaining sons one by one, lost to accidents and perils at sea. She gets nearly destroyed by every death, scrambles through mourning to get back on her feet, only to be stricken again. At one point, I just had enough, but what can a reader say when the writer has done her research and that all these deaths really happened? Eventually, even in these terrible pages of bereavement and tragedies, it was the voice of this unique narrator and the beautiful writing that urged me to keep writing and not leave the book unfinished. In my opinion it was well worth it.