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Review: Napoleon’s Last Island, by Thomas Keneally
Atria, 2016. 423 pp. $30

This engrossing novel imagines Napoleon’s final years, when the Royal Navy escorts him to St. Helena, an island in the South Atlantic, where he is to live out his days. Since the British assume that their famous prisoner has other hopes, if not explicit plans, for escape, they’ve chosen St. Helena for its lack of beaches and position athwart key trade routes, including that from India.

Napoléon at St. Helena, by François-Joseph Sandmann, undated (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Napoléon at St. Helena, by François-Joseph Sandmann, undated (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

From the moment Napoleon arrives in Jamestown, the only town on St. Helena, he casts a spell:

The dread that seized the port in that instant was not only for the man’s devilish reputation, not only for the fact that he was the Great Ogre, but once more that his tread would rock the earth, and that the escarpments above Jamestown would shatter, and boulders the size of God’s hand would descend on the town’s humble roofs. Many indeed must have felt like that, since when the cutter was not so far off, the crowd, which had been vocal all day, grew near to silence, and what had been shouts became whispers. . . .

Like many Englishmen in St. Helena, William Balcombe is fascinated beyond mere curiosity. Known to intimates as Billy, he works for a trading firm doing business with the East India Company. He’s been granted a sizable residence, with orchard and lands surrounding, and a separate house that, with minor alterations, provides a suitable home for Napoleon and his small retinue. Indeed, Billy, a man who likes giving dinner parties where wine flows freely, is delighted to have such close acquaintance to the prisoner, whose charm quickly wins over all the Balcombes–save one.

That one is daughter Betsy, about to enter her teenage years. Known as “impudent” or “wild,” Betsy–to the special horror of the emperor’s retinue–uses her growing skill at the French language to ask him how, for example, he could abandon one army in Egypt and another in Russia. These are excellent questions, and you’d think that the people who’d dubbed him ogre would applaud her acumen. But no; she’s punished instead for her willfulness, though the ogre himself insists that he likes her frankness, even if it takes him up short.

Naturally, Betsy’s less interested in great campaigns than the battle for her own dignity, and she’s trying to figure out whether, say, the games of blind-man’s-bluff she plays with Napoleon are fit for a person such as herself on the verge of womanhood. But that only adds layers to this most unusual story. I can’t think of any other coming-of-age novels in which the mentor character is such a famous, controversial figure, and Keneally uses this relationship to masterful effect. At times the narrative, with its intense focus on manners and social signals, reminds me of Austen, but with a twist: You can feel the dust of lost empires and passionate enmities that would flame at the slightest provocation.

Betsy seeks Napoleon out not just because he’s famous or charming. If Betsy looks to a Bonaparte for her education, it’s because the Balcombes provide none. She has an older sister, Jane, who’s so straight and narrow, forever hoping to set a good example, that even Betsy, who loves her, tires of her; one reason Betsy must test everything and everyone around her is that Jane won’t. (Is it coincidence that Daughters of Mars, Keneally’s fine novel about Australian nurses in the First World War, also featured two sisters, one impulsive, one restrained?) But the Balcombes, chalking Betsy’s behavior up to an ungovernable character, miss the point completely. Napoleon’s got spine, a quality the girl’s father sorely lacks–to his family’s great detriment–and it never occurs to Billy that his younger daughter would even want or need to know what this substance is all about. And in her quest to understand feelings that lie just beyond her ken, she learns about truth-telling, secrets, and power.

The latter lesson comes painfully to the fore when a new governor comes to St. Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe. What a nasty piece of work he is–petty, sadistic, self-righteous, paranoid, and determined to punish Bonaparte any way he can. Since by now the exile is Our Great Friend to the Balcombes, this makes their connection a matter of state, with potentially disastrous consequences for William and his family. The narrative drops hints about this–Betsy narrates from retrospect–so it comes as no surprise. But if I can say this about a writer I admire as much as Thomas Keneally, I’d prefer he just tell the story. No portents necessary, here.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.