An exotic locale, its fabled history, and the latter years of dethroned Napoleon Bonaparte are the colorful core materials of this intriguing third outing from Hansen (after Perlman’s Ordeal, 1999, etc.).
Hansen begins with two terse prologues disclosing the volcanic origin of the island of St. Helena (in the South Atlantic, off the western coast of Africa), and the history of its forlorn earliest inhabitant Fernao Lopez, a Portuguese soldier who had betrayed his superiors during a 16th-century campaign in search of the eastern kingdom of the legendary Prester John. The figure of “the monster” Lopez (so called because he was brutally mutilated as well as banished) blends, three centuries later, in the islanders’ minds with that of the exile Bonaparte, surrounded by his British captors and French coterie, housed with a wealthy merchant family, the Balcombes. The slender plot centers on accommodations made for and by the visiting Emperor, and especially in his unconventional friendship with 14-year-old Betsy Balcombe, a spirited, willful girl who clearly perceives the fallen leader’s intelligence and kindness as well as his weaknesses. We’re taken, to varying degrees, into the thoughts of such other characters as Bonaparte’s docile “amanuensis” Las Cases and dour tutor Virgil Huffington (who experiences a vision that motivates his abortive plan to help Napoleon escape). But most of the supporting players are shadowy, with the glorious exceptions of the Balcombes’ slave gardener Toby, deeply attuned to the island’s natural rhythms and folk culture; and the shadow of Fernao Lopez, glimpsed in dreams and as a passing ghostly presence, finally elegized—long after the Emperor, his retinue and hosts, and the mixed races of servants who attend them have passed on—as “the only one [the island] keeps with her.”
Gloriously imagined—though with a rather low narrative temperature—with its spooky, dramatic detail giving it a feverish intensity.