Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Book review: "The Wreck of the Medusa"

When I finished "The Wreck of the Medusa," I was left with a pretty basic question: What is this book about?

"Duh!," you might say. "Look at the cover: It's about the wreck of the sailing ship Medusa in 1816."

Well, yes, it's partly about the wreck, but the book skitters across several other subjects, too. Author Jonathan Miles spends as much time on French politics of the period as he does on the shipwreck. He also includes a biography of the painter Theodore Gericault (who painted "The Raft of the Medusa"). And he spends one section looking at the slave trade, which had nothing to do with the Medusa.

Miles is clearly a thorough researcher, having dug through diaries, old books and newspapers, and other records to put together this book. He carefully describes how the incompetence of the Medusa captain led to its wreck off the African coast, and he details the horrific ordeals including cannibalism of those who had to abandon ship.

But by the middle of the book, the wreck and the survivors' ordeals are over, and the book seems adrift for the rest. There's too many characters that come and go briefly, and too many shifts in direction. "The Wreck of the Medusa" needs some focus.


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