“He’d risked Jim’s life, and saved it, and replaced his dead father in the secret spaces of his heart.”
Jan Needle’s Silver and Blood: Return to Treasure Island is more than a return, it is a re-imagining – a re-imagining that gives the main characters an emotional credibility which is significantly different both from Stevenson’s original and from Andrew Motion’s recent novel Silver: Return to Treasure Island.
Needle’s earlier writing for children – Albeson and the Germans, My Mate Shofiq, The Bully (all now available on Kindle) – is strongest in its depiction of naïve, confused, adolescent boys, often with harassed, inadequate, single mothers. Silver and Blood is a new book, action-packed and twenty-first century, but is instantly distinguished by this same understanding and empathy for the young hero. Jim Parker has lost his father; he and his mother are failing in business. He’s worried and he’s bored. This makes him easy prey for the first sinister visitor to the Crown and Cushion pub. “Jim guessed the captain was a murderer from the moment that he saw him in the weird and scar-faced flesh. He guessed he was a murderer, but he never thought he’d try to kill his mother and smash up their lives as well. Otherwise he might have done it differently.”
Unsurprisingly Jim is soon way out of his depth and Needle pulls off a masterstroke by introducing his version of Long John Silver into the confused and violent scenes that follow the captain’s death. This is much earlier than the character appears in Treasure Island itself. He has no name at this point, merely “a low voice, warm and friendly.” He wears a suit and tie and has “a broad tanned face, not like a criminal at all” – which merely goes to show how little poor Jim knows about wickedness at this stage.
Jim’s not stupid, however, and is sufficiently alert to sense that the Doctor and Clive Tregarron (the Squire Trelawny figure) may not be as straightforward as they seem. Casting doubt on the integrity of the professional-class characters is another of Needle’s welcome re-thinkings of the original. There is little that is straightforward in this fast-paced adventure: dead men return to life and the blind regain their sight. Double-crossers are themselves double-crossed. There is plenty of action (drugs, guns, treasure and speedboats), one especially good new character (the ship’s engineer) and some evocative descriptions of the island. Mum would have loved it, thinks Jim in his initial innocence, and later it reminds him of an iconic scene from Swallows and Amazons. “Real life was different though. Behind him he heard grunts and panting and the odd swearword.”
Jim has so much to deal with – fear, lies, pain and diarrhoea. It’s not surprising that his early encounter with Long John Golding’s reassuring, masculine strength has filled an emotional void that not all Golding’s subsequent betrayals can finally erase. This imaginative subtlety makes Silver and Blood an adventure story to be enjoyed by older children and adults alike.
“He was John Golding. Yes.”
Reviewed by Julia Jones
Available in Kindle format
Find out more about Jan Needle