Monday, March 27, 2017

A storyteller at work: Brian Doyle's The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World

In 1880, after following his lady-love, Fanny Osbourne, halfway across the globe, Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson lives in San Francisco, waiting for her impending divorce from her unfaithful husband and hoping the money he earns from his scribblings will support a wife and family.

John Carson, his landlady’s husband, is a longtime maritime man, and as they warm themselves by the fire and amble along the hilly streets, Carson recounts episodes from his adventurous life––a subject the historical Stevenson had planned to write about, but never did.

With abundant wit and mellifluous prose, expressed using generously long sentences, Doyle transports readers to diverse lands, including the Borneo jungle, Sydney, war-torn America, and a haunted Irish village. He also perceptively imagines the young Stevenson, a man soaking up new friendships and life lessons while sharpening his talents.

It’s a wondrous sort of paradox that a fiction nested inside another fiction can convey many poignant truths. Doyle’s irresistible novel, which practically begs to be read aloud, is a triumphant ode to the power of storytelling.

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World is published tomorrow by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, in hardcover and ebook.  I wrote this review for Booklist, and the final version appeared in the 2/1 issue.

Some other notes:

- This review assignment arrived last October, at which point I hadn't heard anything about the book. I don't always have the best luck with novels about explorers or adventurers, so it was a pleasant surprise. There's a lot of story and wisdom included in this comparatively short novel (it's 240pp long).

- Unfortunately, I don't find the cover art all that inspiring; maybe the paperback will be an improvement.

- This novel would be a good fit for admirers of Stevenson's own works, as well as anyone who enjoyed Nancy Horan's Under the Wide and Starry Sky, which covers his relationship with his wife, Fanny Osbourne.


  1. I read Horan's book last year - although I really liked it, I thought it was overly long at 474 pages, so this shorter related story might be just the thing - interesting subject matter!

    1. It was a very long book! From what I remember (it's been a while), Horan's novel showed Fanny's time in San Francisco from her own viewpoint, so this novel has a different perspective of the same period.

  2. This novel looks intriguing, especially in regard to narrative structure. I will try it. Thanks for the review, Sarah!

    1. The structure worked well - I didn't have a problem keeping the two stories straight. If you read it, let me know what you think!