This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson
This book was a gift from my good friend Streety earlier this year – in fact a good three months ago. The combination of my heavy workload and the regular book club books has meant that I’ve not had a good run at this book, it’s a bit of a beast at over 750 pages.
The last few days off work and a fairly short book club choice in March (The Princess Bride by William Goldman he of Marathon Man fame and yes it was very good) has meant that I managed to get my head into Darkness and get it finished.
This Thing of Darkness is a book of grand scale and epic storytelling, spanning Britain’s growth as a nation and expansion across the globe with a backdrop of scientific progress underpinning the multitude of stories playing out .
I’m a huge fan of Napoleonic naval tales and in particular Patrick O Brien’s books in the same vein, so in one sense this book delivers plenty of British sea power (sorry) derring do and adventure. On the flip side, this book is a serious study into the human condition, sacrifices made in the name of progress and how this period in our history was an unforgiving and brutal chapter in our history.
Essentially this is a true story and the events that unfold around it are historic and fascinating in equal measure. At the heart of this book is the relationship between two men – Fitzroy, captain of the Royal navy ship The Beagle and his unassuming passenger, Charles Darwin and the relationship between the two men is the fulcrum of the book.
Both men are God-fearing and as the world they know begins to change forever, only one of is ready to adapt and change with it. There are some beautifully put theological arguments threading through the narrative and one can almost feel the world shaking for these richly described characters.
This intense and personal relationship is played out against events of a grand scale – from the industrial revolution in England to revolution in South America on to scientific discoveries that formed the basis of Darwin’s Origin of Species.
The story touches every aspect of the development of modern civilisation from slavery to capsizing the basic tenets of religious faith. The scientific advances of this time were so dizzying that in some ways it reflects our era too, with all the things we know to be true constantly changing, almost like we’ve got used to that idea where our forbears had a series of enormous ‘shocks of the new’ and then struggled to get over that.
This is a book that starts off in the certainty of another age and then finishes in a time where everything is up for grabs, where uncertainty and change is almost palpable. It’s rich and satisfying in terms of the stories told and real people brought to life and offer a mirror to our relatively safe existence.
It feels like another world and another time, yet this book is set only 150 years ago. It’s funny, but books about our incredible history make you think about our future in equal measure – what will our lives be like in 150 years?
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