In the late 1800s – a time of exploration and colonisation – a family of settlers departs from New Zealand for a remote volcanic island they have been told is uninhabited but fertile. Mr and Mrs Peacock and their six children hope to build a new home, grow crops, tend animals, and tame the wild place known as ‘Blackbird Island’. Their idyllic little corner of Eden turns out to be anything but, and when one of the children goes missing dark secrets from the past emerge and threaten to destroy them all. Mr Peacock’s Possessions by Lydia Syson is a wonderfully compelling book. Highly recommended.
The narrative unfolds through the voices of two characters: gutsy and independent Lizzie, the eldest Peacock daughter; and the serious and thoughtful Kalala, one of the six Pacific islanders who – also seeking work and a better life – arrive to help the family work the land. Their much-longed for arrival coincides with the sudden and shocking disappearance of Albert, the eldest but weak and sickly son, and as the search for him develops so too does the mystery – both past and present.
The island is at once beautiful and full of promise, but cloying and over-ripe. The oppressive heat, the unknown vegetation, the difficulties of controlling the land have parallels in the unfolding human relationships:
It didn’t seem right, all this unearned fecundity. Flowers that unfurled their perfume unbidden, petals and even leaves so brightly coloured they seemed brazen. Vines carelessly floating their seeds any which way and honeyed fruit that flaunted itself, then rotted…
There is a strong sense of foreboding woven into the language right from the start. When Mr Peacock hears about the island he asks ‘Where’s the snake?’; The family lands on the wrong side of the island. Kalula is ‘awash with qualms’ as his ship approaches. The skies hang ‘low and grey and heavy’. This contrasts with the driving determination of the tyrannical Mr Peacock, the quiet resignation of his children and the stoicism of his wife. The uneasy tension cannot last.
Kalula speaks in a lilting musical idiom with an appropriately Miltonic syntax:
In water once more, all my limbs are joyful, and my ears too, joyful with bubbling whoosh, all sluice and surge and low, a dulled and busy quietness which is never silence. Eyes open in deepest blue. A slow-winging turtle rises. I rise myself, for air, and sink again. The sea argues; back and forth, it tests me sorely…
He has an instinctive sense of right and wrong that does not necessarily coincide with his missionary brother Solomona’s dogmatic zeal, and it is he who first senses the island’s questionable past. Lizzy on the other hand is clear, brave and direct, trusting in the innate rightness of her adored father. They will both lose their innocence as the mystery unfolds.
Lydia Syson – hitherto an author of YA novels – has chosen a rich and otherworldly historical setting for her first wonderfully compelling adult novel. It has much to say to us about the nature of family ties, power and trust, forcing the reader to question the nature of control and possession, and how far power can and should extend. There is a snake at the heart of this paradise, but whether it was there all the time I’ll leave you to find out. Highly recommended.
If you like this book you might also be interested in Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.
Mr Peacock’s Possessions by Lydia Syson is published by Zaffre, 432 pages.