"The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World" by Brian Doyle is a gentle, magical, lyrical book: a book that picks you up and transports you to another time and place, to the San Francisco of the winter of 1879/1880. Is so doing, it also transports you into the mind of one of the world's great writers, Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson had met the love of his life, Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, while travelling in France. She was a married woman ten years older than himself with two children, whose marriage was foundering because of the serial adultery of her husband, an army officer. She returned home to California to seek a divorce, and in 1879 Stevenson followed her.
Between December 1879 and April 1880, the month before his marriage to Fanny, Stevenson lived in the rooming house of an Irish lady, Mrs Carson, at 608 Bush Street in San Francisco, across San Francisco Bay from Fanny's home in Oakland. He spent much of his time in the city writing, and it is known that he contemplated writing a novel, to be called "Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World". If any of this book was written then nothing of it survives, and it is assumed that John Carson was the husband of Stevenson's landlady.
Enter Brian Doyle, who, as he says in his preface, has written Robert Louis Stevenson's unwritten book for him. The novel that emerges is beautifully multi-stranded. At its heart is a fictitious but wonderfully researched and utterly convincing journal of Stevenson's time in San Francisco, in which we read about his hopes and dreams for the future - and his fears, for he was never blessed with good health. We also read about his love for Fanny and his feelings about becoming the father of a ready-made family. Mostly, though, we read about his day to day life in a city he finds endlessly fascinating: and we read his accounts of the stories he is told by John Carson, and, latterly, by Mary Carson, about the lives they led until the second of two chance - or perhaps not chance - meetings between them, separated by half a world and twenty years. John Carson had been a sailor, and travelled the world, and he has a fund of perfectly-honed stories from places as widely scattered as Borneo, Australia and Ireland, and from his service during the US Civil War. Fanny's own life had been no less incident-filled and adventurous, and she, too, is capable of spinning a good yarn when the inclination takes her.
We are sure there will be scholars of Robert Louis Stevenson's writing who will subject this book to much more rigorous tests than we have applied, for at the core of whether it works is whether it succeeds in convincing the reader that it could have been written by Robert Louis Stevenson, even though we know it wasn't. We've read a lot of Stevenson's work, and for us "The Adventures of John Carson" rings absolutely true. The autobiography Stevenson also worked on while in San Francisco was never published - perhaps it was never progressed very far - but in some ways you can think of Brian Doyle as having written Stevenson's unwritten novel for him, and having completed what could easily have been a chunk of the great man's autobiography at the same time.