When Edmund Talbot leaves England on a ship bound for Australia, he begins a journal dedicated to his godfather and patron. In it he records details of daily life and detailed descriptions of the passengers and crew (many of whom are quite interesting characters). He takes pride in learning maritime vocabulary; that is, once he has overcome extreme seasickness. As a member of the educated upper class he remains at arms' length from most of the passengers and views events with amusement and a certain detached superiority. His social interactions are limited primarily to Summers, an unusually well-spoken officer.
Also on board is a young parson, the Reverend James Colley. For reasons that go unexplained until the end of the book, The ship's captain despises the parson from the outset. Colley persists in currying the captain's favor, and also attempts to befriend Edmund. Edmund initially tries to support the parson, encouraging services to be held on ship. But he is ultimately repelled by Colley's over-eager attempts at friendship. Eventually the tension surrounding Colley reaches its climax, and when Edmund finds a journal written by Colley, the narrative point of view shifts. The voyage is recounted for the reader, pointing out details Edmund had missed, and highlighting Edmund's own role in the conflict.
I liked Golding's technique of telling this sea tale through the two journals. The strengths and foibles of both men were clearly portrayed, and the journals brought the voyage to life with vivid detail. Golding also offers a candid view of the English class structure, which is as present at sea as it is on land. In fact, there is an entire subculture on ship -- the crew and "the emigrants" -- that the reader is barely exposed to, since neither Edmund nor Reverend Colley would mix with them.
This book is the first of a trilogy which was made into a BBC dramatization, To the Ends of the Earth. The story in Rites of Passage was the best part of the dramatization for me, and even though it was familiar I still enjoyed reading this book. ( )