The book was first published in 1929, but there's a very modern feel to it. It certainly doesn't feel like a product of the 1920's. It was also Hughes' first novel, and he struggled after it to come up with another novel that was quite as arresting. An enormously influential novel, it partly inspired Golding's Lord of the flies, and is one of the best depictions of children on the cusp of adulthood.
The novel tells the story of a group of English children living in Jamaica post-slavery but still in the colonial age. Following a hurricane, their parents decide that it would be safer to send the children back to Britain, and they are installed on a sailing vessel heading back to England. En route the ship is boarded by pirates, and the children are captured. Uncertain what to do with their unexpected haul (the pirates are not exactly the epitome of Long John Silver), the pirates are stuck with the children; but when the Captain has a bright idea for returning the children with no unfortunate consequences, Emily, the leading child, will betray them. Her betrayal will have enormous consequences.
The book received some criticism at the time, not least because of its very un-Victorian view of children. Rather than being sweet innocents (the original title of the novel was The Innocent Voyage), some of the children are far more knowing than one might expect, or hope. To a certain extent this is fair enough, as Hughes is wiping away an over-saccharine view of childhood. However there are some sections that make for very uncomfortable reading with very thinly veiled hints of child sexual abuse.
It's also a very violent book, and neither the reader nor the children are protected from the violence. Though ultimately the pirates are to be more afraid of the children, than the children are of them. It's violent and erotic, but also very compelling; more than anything it's beautifully written.
Hughes' prose is wonderful, and he writes a tale that grabs the reader, but that is as far removed from childhood favourites such as Treasure Island, as one can possibly imagine. Oddly enough the thing that I struggled with most was the sense of time. The period in which it is set seems late historically for Caribbean pirates, while some musical quotations in the novel also appear to be anachronistic. I suspect that some of this may have been deliberate, that Hughes is trying to place a novel out of time that becomes a novel of any time. I found this clumsy though, and it did rather spoil my enjoyment of what was otherwise an unforgettable if uncomfortable read.