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The Wager by David Grann

Stranger than fiction

I’ve just devoured a superb non-fiction book in the you-couldn’t-have-made-it-up category. The Wager by David Grann is the story of a doomed secret mission during England’s conflict with Spain in the 1740s. It’s a barely credible story of shipwreck, murder, in-fighting and hardship on an epic scale in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Fuelled by a combination of imperial ambition and arrogance, the mission of the Wager exposes one of the more megalomaniac periods in British history. An unmissable read.

In what can only be described as state sponsored piracy, the British man-of-war the Wager and four other tall ships set off to capture the treasures of a Spanish galleon. While attempting to round Cape Horn, the Wager shipwrecks and a horrific battle to survive ensues. Nine months later, an emaciated crew drifts ashore on the coast of Brazil. It turns out they are survivors of the shipwreck. Six months after, another three men, also from the Wager, crawl onto dry land; this time in Chile. The two parties have two, very different, stories to tell. And the truth matters as mutiny is punishable by death.

The Wager is a meticulously researched book, Grann has not only sifted through a mountain of logbooks, naval records, court-martial testimonies and diaries to reconstruct the events of that fateful journey. He also spent three weeks on a tiny boat travelling to Wager island, as it is now called, tracing the journey of one of the shipwrecked parties. But above all, he’s a remarkable storyteller who brings to life the dire conditions the sailors had to endure, the infighting between them and the all-powerful nature. I’m not surprised the film rights to this book has been picked up by Martin Scorsese.

The Wager by David Grann is published by Random House, 352 pages.

Other books for fans of dramas set on the seas: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, North Water by Ian McGuire or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.

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