Book Review: Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner

Moonfleet – J. Meade Falkner (Puffin Books, 1994)

This novel, originally published in 1898, is a great example of how a sense of pacing and adventure can change for readers over time. Moonfleet is an adventure story, clearly meant for young readers (probably boys, given the time), featuring smuggling, buried treasure, and shipwrecks. It has all of these elements and yet it’s so boring to read.

Call me a millennial with a short attention span if you want but the action in Moonfleet is entirely hit and miss. There are bouts of excitement followed by sections where nothing much happens. Far too much time is given to explanations and not enough to the actual action of the plot. I expected something more like Kidnapped or Treasure Island but Falkner’s work is nothing to compared to Stevenson’s.

John Trenchard is an orphan (of course) in the seaside village of Moonfleet. When he stumbles across an elaborate system of smugglers, it seems like excitement is right around the corner. There is a tale of a ghost and buried treasure and John eagerly goes in search of this lost diamond. There are some thrills when it seems like he’s close to discovering the treasure but then the plot slows right down and focuses on his recovery from illness and the plot switches to the renewing of the lease at the local tavern. Instead of looking for treasure, we spend time literally waiting for a candle to burn down.

In a similar fashion, John and his new guardian, Elzevir Block, become embroiled in a smuggling ring where they are almost caught and John is shot in the foot. With a bounty on their heads, it seems like the plot is finally moving. But then we spend chapters with them in a cave while John’s foot recovers. Realistic, yes. Fun to read, no.

It doesn’t help either that John has clearly found a clue to the location of the buried treasure but isn’t smart enough to recognize it as such until well into the book. And again, when John and Elzevir do begin their treasure hunt, the plot continues in this stop-and-go fashion. The ending is, of course, happy but not because of anything John does. It’s all wrapped up in deus ex machina fashion with John getting everything he wanted. Which is nice but I didn’t really care because there wasn’t much characterization to John. Even though he is the narrator of the story, we don’t delve very deeply into who he is or his motivations. Things simply happen to him more than he is the driving force behind any of the action.

All in all, you’re better off reading Treasure Island.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner”

  1. Perhaps all these slow tell-instead-of-show scenes were more poignant at the time? I see you have Infinite Jest on your cover image and wonder if you’ve read it. David Foster Wallace is, for me, one of those writers who spend so much time away from the plot that I just couldn’t stand his work when I tried it (or was assigned it). I know when DFW’s books were published people ate them up, though. Perhaps he was funny at the time, like Falkner?

    1. I have read Infinite Jest. I don’t find DFW funny but I did find some of his asides and his observations on human nature quite poignant so maybe you’re right. With Moonfleet though I didn’t feel that Falkner was trying to say anything particularly deep, it felt more like he didn’t know how to pace his plot. But again, perhaps that’s something that’s changed in the readership and maybe Falkner’s originally readers would have really appreciated the time spent in a cave waiting for a wound to heal because maybe that related more to their lives than it does to mine!

  2. I found your first sentence very interesting, about “how a sense of pacing and adventure can change for readers over time”. I’ve definitely never thought of it that way, having never read classic adventure books. Maybe the realism was part of the appeal…? May I ask what made you pick this up? I have never heard of it before and am curious as to what interested you to read it 🙂

    1. I found it at a thrift shop and thought it might be worthwhile since it was a Puffin Book and they usually publish classics. We read chapter books with our kids at bedtime and so I’m always on the lookout for ones I haven’t read before. I find older kids books are often less dark than more recently published ones too.

  3. What a pity because smugglers really ought to be exciting! I must admit I had some of the same issues with Kidnapped, as Davie kept getting sick and we’d have chapters of nothing while waiting for him to recover. I suppose getting sick was maybe more a feature of childhood back then and might have resonated more with kids? But it makes for tedious reading now…

    1. That’s an interesting thought, that being bedridden was much more common for children back then and it might have been comforting to read about. It’s still not very exciting though and to go from “How will John escape from the smugglers’ secret vault under the graveyard?” to “He escaped somehow and is now resting in bed” is a bit of a letdown.

    2. Yes, I’d forgotten that, but you’re right. Apparently so did Sir Walter Scott – all this Scottish rain might be good for the crops but not so good for permanently damp children!

    3. Since Scottish weather sounds a lot like our West Coast weather, I’m surprised we don’t have more of a history of bedridden children here!

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