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Review: Treasure Neverland – Real and Imaginary Pirates

Ben Ray sets sail to find his ideal desert island book

There are certain moments, when you’re buried deep in the Bodleian ploughing through an obscure tract of your reading list, when you come across stories or interesting snippets of knowledge that are much stranger than fiction. That odd sense of disbelief and fascination is what Neil Rennie seems to feed off – and ‘Treasure Neverland’ contains page after page of these astonishing jewels and revelations. Whilst the slightly garish strapline promising to track the ‘long dissolve from Captain Kidd to Johnny Depp’ suggests a sensationalist journey through popular piratical figures, Rennie’s text instead reveals extensive research and careful writing. The book balances delicately between the gulfs of dry academia and popular fiction, but always manages to maintain its objectivity.

Perhaps it’s the subject of pirates that fascinates and draws the reader on – even if not all of us have ever read Treasure Island, none of us can pretend not to have seen Pirates of the Caribbean or worn a pirate costume to school on some distant World Book Day. This means the book seems to resonate with our childhood and pulls the past into the present: vague, long-distant names like Blackbeard and Captain Avery are resurrected, drawn up from the dredges of half-remembered books, and expertly placed in historical and literary context. And you don’t need to turn to the extensive notes and index to realise the amount of research that has gone into this book – each chapter, though taking on the air of a story as each piratical anecdote unfolds, is crammed with footnotes and archival references. This is clearly one pirate adventure to be taken seriously.

The dull, sandy cover of this book belies the colour of its contents: at times it seems like Rennie is simply playing around with his subject matter, twisting and meshing various threads to reveal interesting viewpoints and comparisons. The chapter addressing women in literary piracy is entitled ‘Something for the Broad’; another chapter carries the enigmatic ‘Yo Ho Ho and a Cup of Bumbo’. This sense of lightness, verging on humour at points, means that the subject matter never becomes bogged down in the extensive archival research. This subtle touch also means that the twin subject matter of fictional piracy and its comparison to the brutal reality is cleverly woven together – each chapter draws out the similarities and differences between these two worlds in a style my weekly essays can only ever aspire to.

Intelligent, erudite and yet intensely readable and absorbing: Rennie’s work is indeed worth the quest to the OUP bookshop, in search for buried treasure.

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