Picador, 2003 (2002)
Read an Excerpt
Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai
livia Wyvern grew up in England, the daughter of a pilot '
missing in action
' at the end of the Korean War. Though Olivia's mother always held on to an irrational hope that Jon would return one day, this never happened. When Mrs. Wyvern passed away, Livvy returned from Canada, where she lived and worked as a filmmaker, to help her sister Lottie sort through the house before putting it up for sale. During this process she came across several old '
' written by John Henderson, a long-dead relative and a career naval officer.
ivvy had always been intrigued by Henderson, mainly because of the huge wooden spear that he acquired on his travels (it graced the wall above the living room fireplace during her childhood). The spear was an object to fantasize about, but it turned out to hold an even more improbable history! Livvy's ancestral uncle had endured capture in West Africa (where he lost an eye) and the death of his only daughter, but his most intriguing journey was one of his earliest. This was a world voyage aboard the HMS Bacchante with the young grandsons of Queen Victoria - Prince George (who became George V) and his older brother, Prince Edward, who died in disgrace. These documented travels are both beautiful and nightmarish, and Olivia follows Henderson's path as she travels to Tahiti to find answers to the disappearance of her father.
is a well-wrought story, but I did find the prose unnerving at times. Olivia, the narrator, a '90s filmmaker, uses a journal style almost identical to that of John Henderson, a naval officer writing almost a century earlier. I kept getting a sense of
, as when Olivia represents the green slopes of Tahiti as having a '
pelt of vegetation
', and then, less than twenty pages later, her ancestor Henderson describes '
the island's jungle fleece
'. This is an odd analogy for both to use, and is just one example of the disturbing similarity in writing styles of the two diarists in the story. This certainly impacts on the reader as it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint whose tale we are following.
was an enjoyable read that kept my attention well, a book that I would recommend to others. It works as both an historical novel and modern travelogue. On the whole, the plot is plausible. The narrative descriptions are rich and insightful, and the rich tapestry of detail brings the distant locations to life.
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