THE MONSTERS OF ST. HELENA

By Brooks Hansen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 292 pp. $24

Long ago, when I was just a flighty young thing with wild romantic notions, I kept a list of the famous men, past and present, whom I most admired in the world. (Yes, only men; in those pre-feminist days, what teenage girl cared about organizing her reverence for women?) Riding high on that list for a long time was the dashing military figure whose men called him the Little Corporal, the man who brought order out of the chaos of the French Revolution and swore to bring liberte{acute}, egalite{acute} and fraternite{acute} to the rest of Europe. Napoleon Bonaparte, throb of my heart, seemed all glorious hero to me then, never mind that little business about the self-coronation. Which, come to think of it, seemed pretty glorious, too. (Show me the teenager who doesn't imagine a crown on his or her own head.)

But soon life opened my eyes to the truth that so much of Bonaparte's glory was vain, and of course the tenor of our times, not to mention my journalism job, came to impress upon me the inappropriateness of professing unqualified admiration for a man who not only used his armies like threshing machines but also believed in censorship of the press! The man was no god, I saw, but closer to what his British contemporaries branded him -- a tyrant, a monster, the Beast. But still, but still. I recall my teen adulation, the fantasies in which I met the great man, the sparkling conversations we had, our easy camaraderie. . . . And here to my astonishment -- and my enchantment -- they are, rising up from the pages of Brooks Hansen's elegant, elegiac new novel, The Monsters of St. Helena, just as they might have occurred.

For Napoleon, as it happened, had an actual teen admirer of the sort I wished I might have been. In October 1815, transported to his final exile on the windswept volcanic island of St. Helena in the remote South Atlantic, he met a high-spirited 14-year-old named Betsy Balcombe, the daughter of a local East India Company official on whose estate, the Briars, the emperor and part of his 1,500-person retinue took up temporary quarters.

The only fluent French speaker in her family, Betsy was called upon to communicate with Bonaparte, and she readily stepped up to the job. Oh, she'd been indoctrinated regarding the Frenchman's reputation, all right. She "had imagined him since she was a little girl: a gangly giant in a black cocked hat, and a little body like a spider. He had a great long nose and one eye in the middle of his forehead, shooting flame." But Betsy is hardly the fearful -- nor the deferential -- type, and she soon engages the receptive emperor in teasing repartee, rambunctious games with her little brothers and an exchange of practical jokery that gets her banished more than once to the Briars' cellar, whereupon Napoleon comes to feed her licorice drops through the window.

I imagine the natural temptation in many a novelist's hands (okay, mine too) would be to tart the story up a little and goose this May-December pairing with a charge of sexual attraction. But Hansen, to his credit, has sidestepped that obvious trap and hewn to the platonic version of events that Betsy Balcombe herself laid out in the memoir she wrote, as a middle-aged matron, of her relationship with the man she dared to call "Bony." Hansen's interest isn't in spinning out a story of repressed romance in Napoleon's last years, nor even in fleshing out any real portrait of the genius who had it all and ended with nothing. Napoleon the character appears here as if behind a scrim, not quite fully featured, like a shadow puppet. Like the shadow puppets, in fact, of the play Hansen creates to tell the story of St. Helena's first "monster," a defaced and exiled 16th-century Portuguese nobleman named Fernando Lopez who lived alone on the island for years and whose spirit, hovering over all the action here, is worshiped by the island's slaves.

The Betsy-and-Bony story may be the hub of Hansen's narrative, but his real subject is not the prisoner but the prison that holds him. It's St. Helena, a craggy, desolate place so isolated from the rest of humanity that it must be a sufficient universe unto itself. What was it like to live in this place to which the greatest and most infamous man of his time was brought in the prime of his life to die? In easy, near pitch-perfect prose, Hansen recreates it for us, through the eyes of its other inmates -- the English colony of East India Company families trading news of the Gallic Beast's dispatch to their island ("Because," they are grimly forced to acknowledge, "we're farthest"); the Balcombe family and their paradisiacally situated home; their slaves, the knowing, stoic Malaysian gardener Toby and the African house slave Sarah; the doddering and deluded Mr. Huffington, tutor to the young Balcombe boys and covert Bonapartist; the fatuous Reverend Boys, struggling to overcome the pagan impulses of the island's slave population; the members of the British garrison come to guard Napoleon for the rest of his days.

Into this milieu the emperor and his entourage come at first like birds of exotic plumage, a-twitter about their new abode. But soon enough, too soon, the island, beautiful as it is, generates the palling effect of every prison. After exploring what will be its compound on St. Helena's highest point, the imperial party begins its descent back to the capital of Jamestown: "Now even the spectacle of the landscape has dulled. All these fells, the dips, the distant hills . . . have taken on the tarnish of familiarity. Yes, these are the hills, the ditches, the brush they will see again and again. . . . How many more times?" And the man who loomed so large is cut down to a size so small he can be contained on a piece of land a mere 80 miles square. On this indifferent rock in the middle of nowhere, he becomes "just another man who isn't getting off the island alive."

Napoleon lived for six years on St. Helena, expiring at the age of 51, the possible victim, some scholars now think, of arsenic poisoning by one of his own followers. By then, Betsy had been gone from the island for three years, and much of the imperial retinue had likewise departed. Hansen gives us the bare details in the driest, most pitiful of epilogues. And so it ends. But don't you know, I closed his little gem of a book and its meditation on exile, loss, imprisonment and the implacable fates thinking it mightn't have been so sad, if only I could have been there. . . . *

Zofia Smardz reviews frequently for Book World.