Review: One Man Drowing by Steph Minns

Running away in 1762 from a dull life in fashionable Georgian Bath, Jesse Sunderland joins an ocean-going merchant ship. Just nineteen years old, naive and keen for adventure in the expanding world where England rules the seas and dominates the colonies, he has to not only deal with the harshness of this life at sea but coming to terms with himself and essentially his homosexuality, a hanging offence by law in these times. His adventures take him into a passionate affair with the charismatic Captain Jan Hough, who embroils him in his smuggling racket. Set in the ‘golden age’ of the 18th century English smuggler, this is the tale of one man’s quest to find himself, as he battles not only his own demons but the authorities as he is drawn into the dark and dangerous underworld of the smuggler.

Review by Alex Beecroft

As a reader, I’m firmly of the opinion that life is too short to read bad books. So if a book makes me go “oh, for goodness sake!” and throw it down in annoyance repeatedly in the first ten pages, as a reader I would just stop picking it up again. As a reviewer, however, I have a duty to read the whole thing, to see if it gets any better towards the end. Sometimes books do, and you’re glad you held on. The excellence of the end makes it worth having ploughed through the beginning.

One Man Drowning does indeed make me go “oh, for goodness sake!” repeatedly at the beginning. There are so many anachronisms; so many things about what we’re told that don’t make sense in the context. For example, our hero is from a good family (his mother’s family is titled, she ‘spent her first season at the Palace of Marseille‘, and she is well respected among the high society of Bath). But they are impoverished, and he is marrying a girl from a family who runs a successful business, in order to get hold of her money.

So far so good. In the context of the society of the time it makes sense for him to marry the girl, get hold of the money, and then carry on living as a gentleman. He is getting money out of the bargain and she is getting increased status as a gentleman’s wife. But then he goes and lives in his mother-in-law’s house, and gets a job helping her sons run the family business. It makes no sense for him to immediately destroy his status by lowering himself to his wife’s social level. If he did, not only would it negate any benefit she got out of the deal, but the shame and degradation his mother would feel would be acute. Yet she doesn’t appear to feel any shame about his working for a living, and neither does he.

If you’re not sure I’m talking sense about the social stigma involved in work, think about Jane Fairfax in Emma and how she seems to feel that becoming a governess is only one step above becoming a whore. How all people of true sensibility feel terrible for her and try not to mention her oncoming degradation. Think about Pride and Prejudice, and the way all Darcy’s relatives consider that he can’t possibly marry Elizabeth—not because she isn’t a gentleman’s daughter herself, but simply because some of her relations are in trade.

So the set up on the very first page makes me think that the author has no real insight into the thought processes of a character born into society at that time. It makes me think that we are going to get modern characters and modern attitudes wearing dress-up, rather than any real approach to history.

And honestly, I think that reading further proves me right about that. Jesse’s worries appear to be the worries of a man who knows nothing about the society he lives in. He marries this girl for convenience, and all through the ceremony he is plagued by the thought that he doesn’t love her, and that he’s being a cad. Why? Marrying for love was a new and suspicious phenomenon at the time. Marrying as a business merger was a time honoured tradition and Jesse’s tortured scruples just make me think he’s a little ahead of his time.

Jesse actually likes the girl’s brother, James, who likes him back. They get as far as necking on the hearth-rug (without troubling to lock the door) and are discovered by James’ mother. This is clearly a society of matriarchs, because James’ mother takes it up with Jesse’s mother, and she has this verdict:

“But this cannot bring you anything but pain. It is all wrong, Jesse.”

“Wrong? [he replies] I’m in pain now by denying what I feel! Look at the pain I’ve caused Dora too because of the hiding, the dishonesty. Can you tell me that’s right? To hide my true self from society in case, oh God forbid, it disapproves of me and makes me an outcast? Pray don’t turn sanctimonious on me now as I know you are no Bible basher!”

Here we are on page 6 of 269 and I don’t want to read any more. “Bible basher”? Apart from being a phrase that was first recorded in 1885, where on earth is Jesse getting his conviction that only the sanctimonious would disapprove of sodomy? Everyone in British society at the time, from whores to archbishops, at least publicly disapproved of sodomy. And “in case society makes me an outcast”?! Don’t you mean “in case I’m hanged by the neck until dead” or “in case I’m put in the pillory so that the crowd can beat and stone me to death.”?

Where is he getting his pop psychological notions about how damaging it is to deny what he feels? He’s talking like a 21st Century teenager, and at this point I have lost all faith that I’m in a historical at all.

As the book goes on, this only becomes more and more apparent. Jesse apparently thinks that fox hunting is barbaric—a strange attitude for a high born man of his time. He thinks that bloodletting is barbaric (he just happens to know a doctor who just happened to train in China, and on the basis of this acquaintance he rejects a thousand years of medical authority.) He takes every opportunity – or rather the author takes every opportunity, because Jesse scarcely rises above the level of ‘mouthpiece’ until just before the end – to condemn every facet of his society.

Seriously, if I wanted to read a polemic about the evils of Christianity, and how it’s all ‘dogmatic drivel’ which no person of any intelligence or moral fibre could believe, I would not go to historical fiction to find it. Apart from being intrusively preachy, it’s another example of Jesse’s aggressively modern attitude which does not make him in the slightest bit believable for a man of his time.

In the same way, when he’s transported to America for 15 years for smuggling, and given a cushy job as a gardener, instead of being thankful that he’s got off lightly, he cheeks his supervisor and is somehow surprised to be punished. Then he actually slaps the lady of the house and is again surprised to be whipped within an inch of his life. I find it hard to believe that anyone could be that blithely oblivious and stupid.

While he’s there, the author uses him to indulge in further lectures about the evils of colonisation. Which I’m sure is very worthy, but I’m equally certain that his thoughts make him something of a prodigy for his era.

To be fair, I would not deny that an 18th Century man – by virtue of being an independent thinker – could have reached surprisingly egalitarian and modern positions on many things, if that person was presented as a deep philosophical thinker. I have no objection to Steven Maturin, for example, (from the Patrick O’Brian books) who unites some very modern views with a thoroughly 18th Century character. But I don’t see Jesse being presented as that kind of a philosopher. He doesn’t come across as an 18th Century man who has thought deeply about injustice. He comes across as a mouthpiece for a modern author who wants to display how politically correct she is.

She also has a tendency to break out into paragraphs of “my research, let me show you it” facts that read as if they’ve been copied from a text book. For example:

The Powhatans spoke a group language he said settlers knew as “Algonquian”, which they shared with related clans. I came to understand that to them the planet was a conscious being, inhabited by birds and creatures which all had their own spirits and they saw them as fellows, not inferiors. When a game animal was shot or captured it was thanked in a small prayer for giving up its life. I noticed during our hunting trips that not one warrior failed to do this quietly for each rabbit, deer, or bird he took.

This does contribute to a feeling that you are reading an uneven blend of anti-Christian anti-European polemic, non-fiction and anachronism. You’re not being entertained, or even shown the mechanisms, reasons and appalling consequences of colonialism, so that you can come to a deeper understanding of what really went on at the time. You’re being lectured. And I like being preached at no better than she does.

I would not say there was a story. Things happen to Jesse and he reacts to them. Then other things happen. He lurches from one disaster to the next. He’s a reluctant bridegroom. He runs away from his first lover to become a sailor. Then he’s a reluctant housewife, then he’s a reluctant smuggler, then he’s a reluctant convict, then he’s a reluctant revolutionary, then revolution starts looking dangerous so he decides to sell cheese. Then he (reluctantly) takes up with an Earl who happens to come along (but it’s all right because he’s an Earl who wants to live like a peasant), then he’s driven out of his house and goes off to be a smuggler again, then that gets too dangerous and he moves on to something else…. Admittedly, the ending resolves a number of things which had been left hanging, but it’s also a curiously unsatisfying ending, as you’re left with the impression that the next disaster is just around the corner.

Jesse himself is a very passive character and doesn’t appear to have any goals other than being sent to places so that the author can use him to give us her opinions about them. These opinions are generally without nuance—for example, all settlers appear to be evil, all slaves saintly, all Native Americans noble and kindly and supernaturally connected to nature.

I can’t even recommend the book as an interesting way of learning historical facts. I don’t know anything about the Powhatan, for example, so I can’t say how accurate the book is about them, but I do know that Holland was not a Catholic country in the 18th Century. When (following a barn burning) Jesse muses “Such a crime would be …barely considered anything but natural justice by the Catholic Church and the Amsterdam authorities.” I wonder how he’s managed to miss that the country has been Protestant for over a century. I also know about 18th Century ships, and the fact that the Captain of the Viper has “a small hearth with leaping flames” in his cabin makes me think that the level of historical accuracy is unreliable at best.

I think the book would have benefited enormously from the input of a skilled editor. Apart from eliminating the numerous typos, an editor might have been able to encourage the author to show rather than tell. The author clearly is passionate about what she believes in, but she has not yet learned how to immerse her reader in her imaginary world and invisibly guide them to live through the lessons she wants to convey. Currently the book is not an experience, it’s a lecture.

I began to be slightly more interested towards page 200, when Jesse went to Cornwall and actually started to drive the action of the book rather than just being tossed around by his circumstances. Once he became more active in the plot, he stopped, on the whole, being such a pathetic, whiny, judgemental git and I found myself more sympathetic to him. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the end made me glad that I’d suffered through the first 200 pages, but it earned the book the 1.5 stars that it gets, and demonstrated a promise that the next book from this author might be better.

Full disclosure

1. I received this book free in exchange for a review

2. I am a Christian myself, so I may be more annoyed than the average person of other beliefs about the anti-Christian bits. I have, however, tried not to let that influence my review. If the author had been equally preachy for or against any other faith, I believe I would still have pointed that out as a criticism. I don’t think a novel benefits from being used as a soapbox for the author’s views, whatever they are.

Author’s Website

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13 Responses

  1. In all fairness, there were quite a number of men in the era (women too, I imagine, though they didn’t dare speak up) who perceived the evils of religious zealotry in politics… Thomas Jefferson, for instance:

    “… I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”-TJ Jan. 1, 1802

    “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
    -Thomas Jefferson, Dec. 6, 1813.

    “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” -TJ Mar 17, 1814

    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”-TJ 30 July, 1816

    Then again, Jefferson himself owned slaves, so he had his own set of contradictions.

  2. I quite agree – that’s why I mentioned Stephen Maturin, as an example of a character which managed to convince as a person of his era *and* hold some views which were advanced for his time.

    The problem was really in the execution. Both Jesse and his sea-captain lover Jan held the exact same opinions on religion, expressed in the exact same way – and it was a way which was more like the way a modern person attacks right wing evangelism than the way an 18th Century person might attack the established church of the time (which was certainly, in England, a very different kind of entity – not necessarily better, but different.)

    I would have found it more likely if it had just been Jan – an older man of the world who has knocked about and had time to think deeply about things, and come to his own conclusions. The fact that Jesse too held the identical opinion and used the same modern day phrases in which to express it, made me convinced that I wasn’t seeing characterisation, I was seeing the author’s views.

    And yes, Jefferson’s a good example of how an 18th Century man might have been anti-Christian but pro-slavery. I would have found Jesse more believable if he’d had at least *some* of the beliefs of his age, rather than apparently none at all.

  3. Wait… Mr Anachronistically Politcally Correct strikes a woman? Unless there’s some pretty extreme extenuating circumstances – like she’s coming at him with a big knife – that’s when I’d have thrown it at the wall even if I was reading it for a review.

    That’s one I wouldn’t be able to get past and still consider the character at all sympathetic and the guy in the story I’m meant to be rooting for.

    Books like this kind of baffle me, because I wonder exactly who the author is preaching to? How many of the potential readers need to be told that slavery, colonialism and religious opression are wrong. Do they really think there are people out there who will think “gosh, I thought slavery was a jolly good idea until I read this book!” It’s very patronising.

    • The woman is the ‘spoiled daughter’ of a settler family, who is shaking a slave child by her hair because the child broke something. So from a modern POV she probably deserved a slap.

      However, from a historic POV, she’s gentry, Jesse is already a criminal, serving 15 years of transportation. He may have been of relative good birth initially, but much has been made of the way he feels no different from the common sailors with whom he ran away to sea; he’s been in jail for some long time, he’s been transported on a several month long journey where he’s been treated like a slave. So I honestly don’t see how he could fail to understand that his status was so lowly that in striking a woman of quality he was committing an act of enormity.

      He seems to have this deep rooted lack of awareness of class differences which makes him act and think in a way that makes no sense for his time.

      How many of the potential readers need to be told that slavery, colonialism and religious oppression are wrong.

      Well, *exactly!* I think that was one of my perennial sources of irritation while I was reading this. I was thinking ‘please stop lecturing me and just tell me a story!’

      • Gah, the fact he didn’t realise he would be punished for that surely takes away from what he did anyway. Instead of him nobly standing up for the weak against the strong knowing he’ll pay heavily for it, it sounds more like a “too stupid to live” moment.

      • A lot of American writers seem to lack the awareness of class differences in England – especially historical England (which persisted for quite awhile in Colonial America, even post-revolution.) The most blatant example of this is in the Wimsey pastiche books beginning with “Thrones, Dominations.” Despite her credentials, Walsh got Bunter all wrong – he’d lost his air of deferential superiority. It isn’t a matter of approving or disapproving of the system, it’s a matter of acknowledging what exists.

        I can’t tell you Britpickers how much I appreciate your reading my stuff beforehand, or count the number of times you’ve kept me from displaying my Yank ignorance. Thank you.

    • That’s exactly how it came across. I thought “He *hit* her! He’s going to be *crucified!*” and I had a moment of real involvement and emotion. And then his “they punished me! OMG, they weren’t supposed to do that!” reaction undercut the whole thing and made me angry with him for turning what I had hoped was an act of deliberate heroism into an act of stupidity.

    • “Books like this kind of baffle me, because I wonder exactly who the author is preaching to? How many of the potential readers need to be told that slavery, colonialism and religious opression are wrong. Do they really think there are people out there who will think “gosh, I thought slavery was a jolly good idea until I read this book!” It’s very patronising.”

      No, I’m sure no thinking person would think slavery was a ‘jolly good idea’, Junk foodmonkey!!

      Umm, it’s a story and written in the first person, so the opinions were supposed to be my take on the reactions of an18th Century man, from that point of view. Wouldn’t dealing face on with the reality of slavery (accepted as an economic necessity at that time) be an eye opener and shock to him? We see it from a different standpoint obviously now – you seem to have missed that fundamental point.

      Read the book, by the way?

  4. You had me at ‘the Palace of Marseille’.

  5. I have to assume that was meant to be the Palace of Versailles. There were a lot of typos.

  6. Thank you for your honest review, Alex.

    I think your own personal religious standpoint is (as you mention yourself) colouring your opinions on some points, particularly what you see as the characters being ‘preachy’ (er, my opinions of course, you automatically assume!)
    However, there were dissenters, atheists, humanists and anti-abolitionists writing at this time, so why would a thinking man not have considered opinions on the barbarity he saw around him, such as slavery, fox hunting etc?

    To answer your points, perhaps my historical facts were not spot on all the way through. I’m sure the examples you picked up were correct, but why so shocked that Jesse raised his hand to a woman, when the whole point of a realistic character is that (as I’m sure we are all capable of) he does have a dark side and is not quite the ‘goody two shoes’ after all or beyond reproach?

    Yes, I did find it hard to leave behind modern terms while trying to still make the reader understand what I was trying to describe. I’m sure you must have encountered this same issue yourself – perhaps I’d be wise to read your free excerpts from ‘Captain’s Surrender’ and take some expert tips on how to tackle this.

    One thing for sure, if I was given a fellow writer’s book to review (especially a first effort) I would not be so damned rude as you have been about mine, but would try to balance the criticism with positive, helpful feedback they may learn from.

    Steph Minns

    • I’m sorry that you think I’ve been rude, Stephanie. Believe it or not, this review went through many stages as I tried to temper my initial reaction to a point where it was as polite as I could make it without dishonesty. Given my honest opinion of the book, this is me being as positive and helpful as I can.

      I know it hurts, and I’m sorry about that. I know what it feels like myself. But if you can take some of the criticism as a learning experience – go away and look up “show, don’t tell”, and apply that in your next book – then the criticism itself should be helpful.

      If you can’t bring yourself to wonder whether I might have a point or two, then just go “well, it’s only her opinion” and ignore the review. But I’m afraid that, having read the book, this is my honest opinion, and suggesting I might have phrased it in a nicer way doesn’t change that.

  7. A lot of American writers seem to lack the awareness of class differences in England – especially historical England (which persisted for quite awhile in Colonial America, even post-revolution.) The most blatant example of this is in the Wimsey pastiche books beginning with “Thrones, Dominations.” Despite her credentials, Walsh got Bunter all wrong – he’d lost his air of deferential superiority. It isn’t a matter of approving or disapproving of the system, it’s a matter of acknowledging what exists.

    I can’t tell you Britpickers how much I appreciate your reading my stuff beforehand, or count the number of times you’ve kept me from displaying my Yank ignorance. Thank you.

    Class is a tricky issue because even now, in modern Britain, we are trained from birth really to be hyper aware of it – to pick up on thousands of small clues that probably don’t register at all to someone who’s not immersed in the class system. Almost all of us can judge a person’s class (and therefore likely occupations, level of schooling, approximate amount of income, likely interests and political opinions) at a glance. I think you’re right that this is an issue American authors have a very different take on, and just don’t realize – viscerally – is a huge deal in British culture even today, and far far more so in the past.

    *g* I think you’re very brave! I don’t know if I’d dare to write something set in the USA, knowing that almost all my readers would know more about it than me. But if I did, I might have to come back to you for some… Yank Checking(?)

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