Title: The Pacific Room
Author: Michael Fitzgerald
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Published: 1st July 2017
Synopsis: ‘A wonderfully stylistic novel, dreamlike and mesmeric. It moves with ekphrastic cadences, from painting to writing and back again, between the present and the past, both muted and full of nuance, like a watercolour of archived time. Fitzgerald skilfully employs a controlled language of concealment and careful observation through which character is translated. All the while, there are subliminal disturbances below, indicating fatal and fateful meetings between culture and history.’
—Brian Castro, Winner of the Patrick White Award for Literature
This remarkable debut novel tells of the last days of Tusitala, ‘the teller of tales’, as Robert Louis Stevenson became known in Samoa where he chose to die. In 1892 Girolamo Nerli travels from Sydney by steamer to Apia, with the intention of capturing something of Jekyll and Hyde in his portrait of the famous author. Nerli’s presence sets in train a disturbing sequence of events. More than a century later, art historian Lewis Wakefield comes to Samoa to research the painting of Tusitala’s portrait by the long-forgotten Italian artist. On hiatus from his bipolar medication, Lewis is freed to confront the powerful reality of all the desires and demons that R. L. Stevenson couldn’t control. Lewis’s personal journey is shadowed by the story of the lovable Teuila, a so-called fa‘afafine (‘in the manner of a woman’), and the spirit of Stevenson’s servant boy, Sosimo. Set in an evocative tropical landscape haunted by the lives and spirits which drift across it, The Pacific Room is both a love letter to Samoa and a lush and tender exploration of artistic creation, of secret passions and merging dualities.
‘Absolutely fascinating. The Pacific Room stays true to the Treasure Island life of Robert Louis Stevenson, yet frames it within a meta-narrative that moves seamlessly between contemporary Australia and nineteenth-century Samoa – with hauntingly curious twists in the tale.’
—Peter Hill, award-winning author of Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper
The Pacific Room cleverly weaves past and present together in a dual yet seamless story that tells the story of Robert Louis Stevenson, and his time in Samoa, where he was known as Tusitala, the teller of tales, in the place where he chose to live out his final days. Crossing between Stevenson and the people who make up his life, and the modern day art historian, Lewis Wakefield, and a woman, Teuila, as well as the sprit of Stevenson’s servant boy, Sosimo, the story slowly unfolds as the characters and their stories begin quite separately but eventually start to weave together, and form a story that has an interesting premise written in an intriguing style.
Throughout, Stevenson is referred to as “the Scottish writer” in prose, and when he is spoken to or about in his times, as Tusitala, and this suits the mysterious mood of the novel, and thought it took some getting used to, as well as double checking the back a few times, it is an effective way of giving the well-known author a new identity – a descriptive one, and one that I had not known about until this book, and possibly one that not many people may know about. The Pacific Room deals with the fall out of Lewis’s bi-polar and the aftermath of an episode, and how he dealt with losing his entire family in one go, and how that has affected the rest of his life. However, I did not feel that this defined Lewis wholly – it is a part of who he is, and the flashbacks that slowly emerged throughout the novel, and finally answered the questions that had been lingering since page one. Though i found not all my questions where answered – if Lewis and his brother were twins, I wondered why they’d both not stayed for their final exams, or why only one had gone on holiday with their parents?
I would classify this as a literary novel, more about character than plot, and Samoa was a character in itself, ensuring that the nation had a voice as much as the other characters did, and as a character, Samoa shines through the past and present, and acts as a soothing antidote to the stresses that Lewis and Stevenson go through in their respective lives and times, and it became clear to me why they chose Samoa as their respective resting places and convalescence places. It is a relaxed place, where life isn’t rushed – unlike the opening scene in The Mitchell Library of the University of Sydney, where I could feel the pressure and anxiety Lewis felt as things didn’t go the way he wanted them to.
Overall, it is a book that has an interesting premise, told in a way that I had not quite expected when I received it. It was a book I was not sure what to think or write about at first, and may not have been something I would have picked myself in a bookstore. It shows a new side to Robert Louis Stevenson and what people see in the world, and what they come to expect from people when they have prior knowledge of what they have been through. It is a story about growth and change for Lewis, and how a new place can help heal or find your way back to yourself.
I would recommend this book for fans of literary fiction and storylines that have a few secrets that will be held back, even at the ending. An insightful read into an aspect of the human condition and psyche, and the way we choose our identity amongst some people, but also who we choose to share things with.