So I’ve been keeping up pretty well with a reasonable reading rate over the past few weeks, reading to devour some books, and nibbling at others (looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.) Lydia Syson’s Mr Peacock’s Possessions was book three out of my box of stories that I ordered – a cover that promised some mystery and intrigue, and a blurb that promised a historical story featuring challenging and fraught relationships between settlers and Pacific Islanders. (A note on book two: I began it, but ended up tossing it aside because it was a bit too ‘white saviour writes about the corruption and poverty of Africaaaaa’ for my taste. I’m a bit stuck on how to dispose of it, because I don’t want to send it out into a charity bookshop where an unsuspecting reader could pick it up and internalise more misconceptions about life in Africa through one white man’s murder mystery plot. I may staple Binyavanga Wainaina’s excellent essay entitled “How to write about Africa” to the front page as a way of pointing its potential new reader in a better direction.)
The blackbird on the cover comes up thematically over the course of the novel, and the rich flora and plant matter give it a Gauguin-esque feel of lush vegetation, as recorded by an artist. So, I got stuck into this one, with slight anxiety after my postcolonial-literature-education reaction to the previous book, but I think that it was different enough to my sphere of reference that I was much better able to read it.
The book tells the story of the Peacock family, who arrive and settle a remote island in the South Pacific region, north of New Zealand, but pretty far from everywhere. They arrive to pick up where the previous settlers left off, growing fruit and planting crops, making the island into a reasonable restocking point for ships on the whaling route and other long-distance Pacific journeys. Set in 1879, it’s a story of hard living, with the family very much forced into rough subsistence quickly by inadequate and spoiled food stores. After several months of barely surviving and seeing only one ship with other people on it, a ship brings through a group of Pacific Islanders (called the Rock Fellows) to help them work the land. At the time of the newcomers’ arrival, the eldest son of the family goes missing, never to be seen again. The family and their new collaborators struggle with the disappearance of the child, which is one thing that leads to mistrust and strained community dynamics. The story comes to a head with the discovery of the boy’s body and the ultimate fracture this causes the family and the community they’ve built.
Throughout the novel, there are two main characters through whose perceptions of the world we are directed. Namely, they are young Lizzie Peacock, who starts out as her father’s right-hand (as much as he attempts to berate her brother Albert into that role), and Kalala, one of the Rock Fellows who has been brought to the island to labour for the family, in return for pay in the form of calicos for their family.
Lizzie is a headstrong young adventurer who, if not for the historical era, would probably be called a tomboy. Her main motivation is to please her father, so she works hard on settling the island to make it their own. Her relationships with her siblings, particularly with her sister Ada and Albert, create a large amount of family tension. Ada and Albert seem to be at odds with their father and his incredible drive for dominion over the land, animals and even his family, while Lizzie is determined to make this new settlement work. Lizzie also builds a relationship with one of the workmen who is brought to the island, which ultimately changes how she views her father and how she relates to her siblings.
The Rock Fellow she builds the relationship with (not a romantic one, though there are some kind of hints/mild tension in that direction) is called Kalala. He has a very frank way of looking at the world, and is informed by his Pacific Islander roots and his time spent with a missionary called Mr Reverend (well, that’s what they called him, at any rate). Kalala’s steady bearing is interesting, because he provides a balance or counterpoint to Mr Peacock’s single-minded approach to the island and to his family. Kalala and his brother, Solomona, seem quiet, studious and well-mannered, going against what stereotypes Mrs Peacock believes of them. Kalala weighs his Pacific Islander heritage and mission-school education with what he sees of the Peacock family and their life, and often seems to marvel at how limited their perceptions are.
One key theme of the novel is dominion, both in terms of possession of land and people, and settling the land. The historical context provides a rich backdrop for challenging considerations of people’s place in the world, with the Peacock family moving around, unable to establish themselves as successful settlers wherever they go, and the group of Islanders, who seem more in control of themselves and their environment. The title, too, makes you consider who or what exactly constituted Mr Peacock’s possessions. And what gives him the right of possession in any case?
The conflict between the Pacific Islanders, called ‘kanakas’ in the book (a term which I have researched and is now considered derogatory, as I expected) and the white settlers is tied to the exploitation of the people from various islands in the South Pacific and Melanisia, through kidnapping and deception, essentially amounting to slave trading. Kalala’s father was the victim of this practice, called blackbirding (hence the picture on the front of the book). I think this theme, while central to some of the book’s conflict was underdeveloped, and there could have been some rich scenes between Mr Reverend and his flock, who suffered due to this practice. It’s very much more an undercurrent than an in-your-face dissection of the issue, and could be discussed with greater attention to Mr Peacock and his approach even to his own family. Does he blackbird his wife and children, kidnapping them from comfortable settler existence to turn them into indentured labourers building his dream?
Another significant theme running through the novel is religion. The Pacific Islanders ironically bring with them far stronger religion than the Peacock family does; they have grown up at a missionary outpost, were well-educated (compared to the illiterate Peacock children) and even feature a trainee pastor among their number. It reads a bit like The Poisonwood Bible in reverse, because the white settlers ‘benefit’ from the religion bought to them on their remote island. The fanaticism of Mr Peacock is certainly reminiscent Poisonwood’s Nathan Price, even if they are fanatical in different directions. In both cases, paternal fantaticism leads to the death of a beloved child in their new homes, and a fragmentation of their families following this tragedy. I enjoyed the irony of Solomona bringing his bible to the island; I think it checks a lot of preconceptions and stereotypes about civilisation and conquering that come through in less self-aware literature telling colonial stories.
Structure and timing
In terms of the novel’s structure, it varies between flashbacks to ‘Before’, which is variably before the Peacocks arrived on the island, to their struggle in setting up their settlement, all the way until the arrival of the boat bringing the other inhabitants of their island and Albert’s fateful disappearance. The Before sections are told in past tense, with a focus on Lizzie and her journey.
The story of the ‘present’ (not labeled as such) is told in present tense, adding to the suspense of the unfolding events. Interestingly, the bits of the present story focusing on Lizzie are still told in the third person, whereas the sections told from Kalala’s perspective are told in first person. The agency shown in this, and that he is given the first chapter, continues to flip the narrative from the white settler with all the power (or even white settler encountering the power of the world and being found wanting) to a more interesting and nuanced postcolonial narrative.
In general, the novel deals with its subject matter with sensitivity and clearly a decent amount of work towards uncovering and incorporating the area’s history.
Yes, I enjoyed reading the novel. I enjoyed it much more than the largely quite similar Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, as I found it less preachy and better structured in terms of its rising and falling action.
If you come across it, it’d be worth reading. I’d happily circulate my copy into the world – I’m not planning to re-read.
I will likely have a look at Syson’s other works, because I like her literary touch.