The Voyage of the Dolphin by Kevin Smith review: iguanas, an Arctic voyage and 1916
A seafaring jaunt buoyed with plenty of humour has an unusual take on history
The Voyage of the Dolphin
What do three hapless Trinity students, an iguana, a mangy dog and a voyage to the Arctic have to do with 1916? Very little, and yet there are episodes in Kevin Smith’s second novel that evoke the carnage wreaked on Dublin far more effectively than other recently published books steeped in rebellion narratives.
The Voyage of the Dolphin skirts around the issue of 1916. Civil unrest and the push towards violence is in the background of Smith’s comic adventure story, most of which is set at sea. A convoluted plot sees three Trinity students with minimal sailing experience agree to go on a ludicrous expedition to Prospect Island to retrieve the bones of Bernard McNeill, a Tyrone giant whose body was left behind on a previous mission.
A good old seafaring jaunt buoyed up with plenty of humour, Smith’s novel is a riot from its opening chapters set on campus. As the trio of friends, Fitzmaurice, Crozier and Rafferty, deal with the fallout from yet another of Fitzmaurice’s half- baked schemes, the college’s malevolent deans plot how best to use their students, while quaffing expensive bottles of wine. Smith has a light touch with detail that goes a long way in a novel with a dizzying number of settings. From “the cascades of cherry blossom in Front Square, the yeasty gloom of the Bailey” to the “skeins of milky green light writhing across the northern horizon”, the trio’s journey from students to seafarers comes vividly to life.
Sending your protagonists on a journey is an old literary trick and one that works well for Smith. Joining the students on board the Dolphin are eight hardy crew men, led by crotchety Scotsman McGregor, his beloved dog Bunion, Fitzmaurice’s pet iguana Bridie and a stowaway suffragette, the English-born Phoebe, whose ingenious misuse of female underwear at a public rally has forced her to flee Ireland.
Beginning in a Dublin poised for rebellion, the ship takes in Stornoway, Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Bay, the Cape of Nimrod and the Boothia Peninsula, before reaching the inhospitable destination of Prospect Island.
A range of perspectives in an omniscient narrative works well to show different voices from that era. Fitzmaurice, a rich Anglo-Irish student who happens to be the nephew of Ernest Shackleton, leads the devil-may-care lifestyle of the privileged. Fellow West Brit Walter Crozier offers a more pensive and philosophical look at the British in Ireland and, as the journey gets going, at the occupation of various local cultures further afield by foreign forces. The parallels between Greenland and Iceland, ruled by the Danes, and Ireland under Britain are well drawn.
Rafferty is the sole Irish student, whose mother was determined he would do medicine in Trinity, no matter what the family’s religion. Phoebe the feisty stowaway running rings around the all-male crew gives another point of view, her theories on women’s rights highlighted without being belaboured.
It is what Smith does best, this blending of serious historical fact with lively dialogue, a fast-paced plot, and a knack for storytelling. His book recalls Shirley Barrett’s recent debut Rush Oh!, an entertaining tale set among the whaler community of 1920s Australia. The Voyage of the Dolphin is published by Sandstone Press, the imprint behind Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s engaging third novel Miss Emily. With its mix of historical fact and humour, there are similarities with Smith’s book.
From Co Down, Smith is a former foreign correspondent who lives in Dublin with his family. His first novel, Jammy Dodger, was listed for the 2013 Desmond Elliott Prize for new fiction. His irreverent look at the past in his second book is refreshing in a year that has seen numerous fictional retellings of Irish history. “Bloody Shackers,” Fitzmaurice complains about the legacy of his uncle to his friends, “‘people are always expecting me to be more like him.”
Iguana Bridie is another source of comedy – “they did not like her haughty demeanour and malevolent stare” – as are the crew’s attempts to stage photos along the way for their equipment sponsor back home.
For all its humour, there are episodes within the novel that are poignant and memorable. A somewhat jarring return to Dublin mid-narrative shows Mrs Rafferty making her way from Phibsborough to her sister’s house on Waterloo Road on the day the violence escalates on the canals.
In later chapters, the giant O’Neill’s affecting tale within a tale renders the plight of an outcast in rural Ireland. His desire for a casteless, utopian society is admirable, but as Phoebe archly points out to the students when they think they might have to remain there: “Without free will it couldn’t be paradise.”
Such insights slot neatly into Smith’s adventure story, a rip-roaring trip to the Arctic that offers a most unusual take on history.
Sarah Gilmartin is an arts journalist