502 P. 2011
The Voyage and the Return is, as Christopher Booker tells us in his book of the same name, one of The Seven Basic Plots. On one level you could summarize the plot of this story quite simply- a young man travels to the South Pacific to collect artefacts and exhibits for an industrialist’s exhibition, then he returns. But this summary would sorely undersell the complexity, exuberance and intelligence of this book.
I’ve been dabbling around with the 1840s colonial travellers and gentleman naturalists for too long, because the setting of this book jolted me into a different timeframe and mindset. By the 1890s, wealthy, and especially American, magnates had moved into the field, buoyed by the increasingly large commercial success of the World Fair phenomenon, and keen to pour their wealth into their private collections which could be levered for commercial and philanthropic gain. They were anxious that the best artefacts had already been picked over, and were competing against each other as well as private and public museums to scoop up what was left. But a century of missionary endeavour and ethnographic plunder had changed the indigenous tribes as well, who were no longer content with mirrors and beads, and demanded guns as the price of exchange now.
Into this scenario steps Owen Graves, the poor but ambitious son of a demolitions expert, who is contracted by the wealthy owner of the Chicago First Equitable Insurance company to travel to the Pacific to collect artefacts, and especially human exhibits, for a display in his new building- the world’s largest. The company president, Hale Grey, insists that his dilettante son Jethro accompany the voyage where he could indulge his passion for collecting and taxidermy.
It was the “human exhibits” that were the sticking point. Owen’s fiance, Adelaide, was a strong-willed and forthright humanitarian who would have been appalled by this trafficking, and so he did not tell her this part of contract. It transpired that he collected only two Melanesian islanders – a brother Argus Nui and his sister Malini- to take back to Chicago. Argus had been thoroughly enculturated into British life by a missionary with whom he lived as house-boy, and both he and Malini were forced to enact a parody of primitive village life on the rooftop of the increasingly dangerous First Equitable Insurance building as it subsided into the lakeside shore.
It is ambiguous which setting is, in fact, the ‘bright and distant shore’. The Pacific Islands shimmer in the crystal waters, disguising the trade in people and artefacts not only on the part of American collectors and industrialist-philanthropists, but also the more sinister blackbirding system that supplied the Queensland canefields with labour. Or is the ‘bright and distant shore’ the tawdry lure of America, that promises wealth and, for Argus, an opportunity to become a missionary perhaps in his own right?
This book is large and almost nineteenth-century in its scope and language. It tackles big questions of exploitation, class, culture, avarice and tradition, and its characters- all of them- are complex and nuanced. The writing is beautiful in many places with words that are unconventionally but deftly used and the narrative swoops across oceans and wreathes around one character after another. It’s a very confident, assured book.
The author is Australian-born, resident in America since 1989, but that doesn’t stop us claiming our literary expatriates like Peter Carey and Geraldine Brooks. He’s right up there with them, but I hadn’t heard of him until this book. It was shortlisted for both the Age Book of the Year and the Vance Palmer Prize Fiction Prize.
A thoughtful review by James Bradley is here.
My rating: 9/10 (again).
Read because: it was the February reading for the Yahoo Australian Literature online reading group.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library