Napoleon’s last exile on the island of St. Helena as related by a British teenager who befriended him.
First, we witness the painful death of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose suffering is raised to the level of punishment by the grisly ministrations of drunken and or/quack physicians. The suspense does not lie in what happens to Napoleon but in how he gets to this pass. That is a story told with as much meandering as St. Helena’s mountain roads by Betsy Balcombe, teenage younger daughter of William Balcombe, who's employed by the East India Company as a provisioner of goods on the island. When he's first brought to St. Helena, Napoleon, known variously according to one’s patriotic bent as the Ogre, OGF (Our Great Friend), the Emperor, or the General, is kept under very commodious house arrest in a guesthouse of the Balcombe residence, the Briars. There, an affinity grows between him and Betsy, nurtured by reciprocal childish pranks and a mutual interest in horsemanship. With a small French entourage and a brimming larder supplied by the East India Company, Napoleon maintains a semblance of court life. The plot drags, though, as the book details Betsy’s growing pains. Gradually she becomes aware of male suitors and also of her superior attractiveness vis-à-vis her long-suffering older sister, Jane. Her incipient womanhood threatens her cherished identity as a hellion, and she’s disillusioned when a resentful admirer tells her that Napoleon was overheard extolling her feminine charms. There are far deeper disillusionments and betrayals to come. St. Helena’s new British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe (in “Name and Nature,” as he is dubbed by Betsy) arrives determined to make sure that Napoleon’s exile more closely resembles jail. The strictures he places on the emperor and his ruinous allegations against William Balcombe for befriending him bring about the novel’s dispiriting and attenuated denouement. The faux regency prose is convincing without being unduly daunting.
Clearly, Keneally’s sympathies lie firmly with Napoleon and the Balcombes, as will the reader’s.