2017, 237 p.
When I saw that this book was about Robert Louis Stevenson I wondered if I should just spend a little time googling around before I read it. I knew very little about him beyond ‘Treasure Island’ and a vague sense that he was in the Pacific at some stage. No, I decided. Let the book stand on its own two feet and so I launched in.
At first I was reassured, if somewhat underwhelmed, by the ‘researcher as explorer’ framing of the story. It’s a technique which is becoming a little hackneyed, having been used by several books in the last decade or so, and replayed over and over with all the misty-eyed emoting in the television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ I don’t need to know any background here, I thought, because the fictional art historian Lewis Wakefield is obviously going to tell me, as he tracks down images in the Mitchell Library in Sydney and then travels to Samoa. In particular, Wakefield is researching a portrait by the long-forgotten (and real life) Italian artist Girolamo Nerli, who travelled by steamer to Apia in 1892 to capture on canvas the duality of the Jekyll and Hyde characters through his depiction of their creator. We don’t actually see this portrait, even though Hyde and the other characters in the book describe it. What we do see is a black-and-white photograph of Stevenson that runs the entire length of the inside cover, stretched out in a garden with two Samoans recumbent on the grass beside him, with a garland of flowers around his head and looking every bit the languorous bohemian.
The book has 36 chapters, some of which are very short. There are several threads to the story. First, there’s the present-day art historian Lewis Wakefield, orphaned as a child when his family, including his twin brother, die in an Antarctic air crash. Then there’s Teuila, a dancer in a nightclub, grieving as she watches Henry, a Samoan who has returned from New Zealand, as he plans to marry Shema. We have Teuila’s friendship with the other dancers, and her family relationships now and in the past, most particularly her identification with her ancestor Sosimo. Then, moving back narratively to the past, there’s the household revolving around Robert Louis Stevenson, known by his ‘native’ name as Tusitala. Stevenson’s American wife and his widowed mother live with him there too, with Stevenson’s servant boy Sosimo (Teuila’s ancestor) and the Australian Mary. The whole household is disturbed by the appearance of the painter wishing to paint the author’s portrait. Rather confusingly, all these chapters- both in the present day and in the past- are narrated in the present tense, and each starts in a rather similar way with an unnamed character. Only gradually does it become clear which thread you are following, in an effect like a kaleidoscope gradually settling into an image.
It doesn’t surprise me that Brian Castro wrote the blurb for this book. Castro and Fitzgerald are not dissimilar writers, who both revel in language and imagery. I found that Fitzgerald’s language evoked the riot of a jungle, sinuous and dense, and there were a couple of times when I found myself wondering if the image he was drawing even made sense. Both writers deal with crossing borders and the exotic, and both these themes are important here. I’ve read several Castro books (even though I’ve only reviewed one because the others predate this blog) where, just as I felt with this book, I could follow the narrative at close-up but wasn’t really sure whether I knew quite what was happening on the wider scale.
I’ve been thinking, too, about the technique of using a present-day researcher as a lens through which to tell the story. I’m listening right now to Hilary Mantel’s excellent Reith Lectures (available here) . I don’t think – although I may be wrong- that Michael Fitzgerald (or I, for that matter) would describe this book as ‘historical fiction’. The present-day character tethers the book, and the perspectives that it is likely to explore, firmly in the twenty-first century. It is a revisioning of past characters, not so much on their own historical terms, but through the sensibilities and awareness of the present day.
I chose not to read any background before reading this book, but what I have done since has enhanced my appreciation for Fitzgerald’s skill in integrating real-life characters into his narrative. I’m still not sure that I understood it completely, which may be my failing, just as much as the book’s. It’s not a particularly easy read, but its imagery is beautiful. And, as I closed the book, I saw all sorts of things in the photograph on the inner covers that I just didn’t see before.
Sourced from: Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge publishers