Mr Peacock’s Possessions…
About the Book:
An intimate, intense, beautifully realised novel of possession, power and loss of innocence, for fans of Mister Pip and The Poisonwood Bible.
Oceania 1879. A family of settlers from New Zealand are the sole inhabitants of a remote volcanic island.
For two years they have struggled with the harsh reality of trying to make this unforgiving place a paradise they can call their own. At last, a ship appears. The six Pacific Islanders on board have travelled eight hundred miles across the ocean in search of work and new horizons. Hopes are high for all, until a vulnerable boy vanishes. In their search for the lost child, settlers and newcomers together uncover far more than they were looking for. The island’s secrets force them all to question their deepest convictions.
Swiss Family Robinson meets The Island of Doctor Moreau in this exceptional novel of historical fiction set in 1879 on a remote Oceanic volcanic island.
“There’s a certain kind of shiver in Oceania that tilts you off balance before you know it. Your soles and stomach feel it both at once, and the air shimmers, and also your ears and eyes and nostrils. It’s inside you and outside you; sometimes to give notice that a pot will fall or a plate will break, sometimes that trees will move and the earth will gape. Even if it only lasts a second, even if its beginning is also its end, right at the heart of that very second balances the nauseating prospect that nothing might ever be the same again.”
It seems entirely unbelievable to the modern reader that a family could just claim a remote island and make it their own, yet within the context of a world not yet fully explored, as it was in the 1800s, it is entirely plausible. When we meet the Peacock family, they have ‘claimed’ a remote island, one of many in a chain of volcanic islands between New Zealand and Tonga (from what I could make out, forgive me if I turn out wrong on the actual location). The island is officially called Monday Island (based loosely on the actual Tuesday Island – there’s more about this and the origins of the story in the author notes) but is colloquially known as Blackbird Island, a name that will come to have grave meaning as you read your way through this stunning story.
Joseph Peacock is the Dr Moreau of this story, except of course he isn’t, this is just my own comparison. But I was struck from the beginning on how much he made me think of Dr Moreau and it was all in the level of arrogance, that ‘master of the island kingdom’ posturing that both of these characters possessed. Joseph frightened me, he was incredibly volatile, his family entirely at the mercy of his whims and moods, all while being stuck on an empty island with an active volcano surrounded by raging seas. He was utterly possessed with carving out his own kingdom, even going so far as to rename the island, ‘Peacock Island’. He was a hard man, cruel to his children, openly favouring some over others and encouraging hostility between them as they clamoured for his favour. He was somewhat devoted to his wife, and in this, she held a certain level of power to check his actions, yet this was not balanced on a whole and he was, for the most part, completely unrestrained. His third eldest child, teenaged Lizzie, is clearly his favourite. Tough and wily, it’s often said that she would have made the ‘perfect’ son, as opposed to her weak and fearful older brother, Albert. Lizzie adores her father, is completely blind to his faults, ‘blind and deaf’ as her older sister Ada is wont to say, and as the story progresses, her awakening to her father forms the backbone of the narrative.
“All this work has always been for Albert. It’s all Pa cared about. Not him, exactly. But his name. Securing the future for the Peacock family, a tiny empire nobody could ever take away because it belonged to no one, where nobody else could give orders. Peacock land for generations. But that meant the boys. Albert and Billy, and the sons they would one day have, and the sons those sons would produce in time. Perhaps Pa planned to bring them wives one day, to ship them in with the sheep and make them breed. Lizzie doesn’t know. She realises of course that she has been useful, tough and bold enough to have secured her father’s admiration, but now she recognises that she is also dispensable. This land never would or could be hers. It has taken Albert’s vanishing to make her understand.”
Lizzie was a fabulous character and she shares the story telling with Kalala, one of the six Pacific Islanders that have landed on Monday Island – Mr Peacock’s ‘Kanakas’. The dual perspective is also combined with a then and now narrative, and it all comes together masterfully, the tension building as each new aspect is revealed and the horror of what the island is concealing becomes apparent. Lizzie and Kalala form a friendship over time, bound by a mutual experience of being haunted by their dead. For some time, neither of them understand what plagues them while they sleep (for Lizzie) or visit certain parts of the island (for Kalala), but their discovery of these afflictions within each other proves to be a turning point in their relationship. I loved their connection, and the way Kalala viewed the world. There’s a particular scene where they both encounter each other at night while whale watching, and there’s a realisation that they are watching the same whale that passed by a year previous, despite being on different islands. This thought by Kalala was quite beautiful:
“A chain of whales has linked us through months and oceans when we knew nothing of each other.”
Alongside themes of patriarchy and family violence, there is an entrenched sense of white entitlement that runs through this story. History is rife with this, and Lydia Syson replicates this on her island to perfection. The island itself is hiding a horrific history that I don’t want to spoil here, but the revealing of it was profound and harrowing, in the way that learning about the horrors of the past often are. What humans are capable of doing to each other is often beyond my comprehension, but when it comes to slavery, I have a particular distaste that lasts long beyond the final page. I liked the confronting nature of this novel, the way that history wasn’t painted over and simply alluded to. These are my favourite sorts of novels, the ones that show our past the way it really was, without the window dressing and despite the collective shame associated with recollection and airing out.
The island itself is a living and breathing character within this novel, and I loved the way it accepted and repelled its interlopers in equal measure. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have lived there, the inhospitable terrain and beign so open to the elements. Joseph Peacock made slaves out of his children and provided very little in return in terms of food and shelter. And yet, the island teemed with life, but it was very much a survival of the fittest scenario. Lydia Syson writes with such atmosphere, her setting is almost tangible in its realisation. I loved this novel, so completely, it was gripping and absorbing and thrilled me all the way through. Historical fiction rarely comes better than this.
“Lizzie stops trusting herself. She begins to doubt the island. Its noises have not changed but now she is alone in the forest Lizzie hears them freshly. Birds whose unremarkable cries have kept her company on hunting expeditions for nearly two years squawk like frightened children among the fleshy leaves of mouse-hole trees, whose branches meet high above her head. She catches something of Albert’s voice; misrecognition pierces her just below the ribs. The air itself feels violent, as though the island is gathering itself for something. She imagines it breathing, heaving, maybe shifting.”
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Mr Peacock’s Possessions for review.
About the Author:
Lydia Syson lives in south London with her partner and four children. After an early career as a BBC World Service Radio producer, she turned from the spoken to the written word, and developed an enduring obsession with history, including her family history. Read more about Lydia and her books at http://www.lydiasyson.com or on Twitter @lydiasyson
ISBN – 978178576488