The 19th-century abounds with tales of colonialist exploitation. Distant and seemingly primitive communities were pillaged for anything collectible – including, at times, their people. High on the pillagers’ list of targets were the Pacific islands and our own shores. Witness the artefacts and heads still on the shelves of Western museums.
Expatriate Australian Dominic Smith’s ingenious epic, Bright and Distant Shores, follows just such a trajectory. A rapacious Chicago insurance magnate is desperate for hubristic publicity for his new skyscraper to translate into more underwriting business. What better way to attract the crowds than a special rooftop exhibit? He employs an orphan demolition man, the ominously named Owen Graves, to trawl the South Seas in search of “several natives related by blood” as the centrepiece of the display.
Graves sails with licentious and cantankerous captain Baz Terrapin and meets his guide, another orphan, the Melanesian Argus Nui, who has an addiction to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield – dark shades of Mister Pip? Two “sibling savages” are found, brought back to the windy city and, predictably, suffer a “death of the soul” in its commercial canyons.
Smith’s novel is beguiling, if somewhat baggy. His descriptions of island life and travels on a clipper are marvellously inventive, and there is strong narrative drive. There are, however, passages of merely peripheral interest, like the train journey across the US, the pianos stuck on the ice, the preparations for a wedding. They simply intrude to no real purpose. Likewise, Smith’s choice of names ranges from the bizarre Terrapin to the overly symbolic Graves et al.
But at the novel’s heart lies real tension, in the clash between the tribal and the civilised, and genuine insight into where such values lie.
BRIGHT AND DISTANT SHORES, by Dominic Smith (Allen and Unwin, $36.99).
Steve Walker is head of English at King’s College, Auckland.