JOSEPH BANKS by Patrick O'Brian
Kirkus Star


A Life
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A finely wrought and fascinating biography from O'Brian, acclaimed author of historical naval adventures (The Truelove, 1992, etc.), who now turns his considerable storytelling talents to the life of Joseph Banks (1743-1820)--explorer, botanist, natural philosopher. Banks is a biographer's dream subject: He wrote letters by the peck and drove, left thousands of journal pages, and led an eventful, public life. As a young man, he served as expedition botanist on Captain James Cook's first circumnavigation of the globe (thus claiming his fame), then went on to develop the royal gardens at Kew into a world-class botanical collection; to produce the colossal collection of botanical treasures from the Cook's Endeavour voyage; to make vibrant the moribund Royal Society during his long presidency; to spur the colonization of Australia; and to spend years as privy councillor and close friend to George III. Banks even concocted the breadfruit transplant scheme that brought mutiny to the Bounty and Captain Bligh to the silver screen. O'Brian has a gift for taking a swarm of potentially suffocating details and spinning a compelling story, full of marvelous understatements ("He showed remarkable courage when faced with angry cannibals"; "The inhabitants behaved in a somewhat murderous fashion"), complete with delightful minutiae from the byways and backwaters of Banks's life. Here, O'Brian really shines as a writer, pure and simple, wielding his graceful and stylish prose with great dexterity. Fortunately, he is not so in love with his own voice that he doesn't let Banks speak for himself. Long passages directly from the naturalist's journals are wisely included; their raw, abbreviated quality lends a keen immediacy to the narrative. An impressive achievement, destined to swell the ranks of O'Brian's already sizable readership.
Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0226616282
Page count: 328pp
Publisher: Godine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1992


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