Monday 7 May 2018

MR.PEACOCK'S POSSESSIONS by Lydia Syson. A review and an interview by Adèle Geras


This novel is pleasurable on so many levels that it's going to take me a while to list them all, and to do so without any spoilers.
MPP, as I'll call it, is a novel that explains and illuminates a short moment of history in a place so remote that I'd never (to my shame) ever heard the name Kermadec Islands before. This is where the story unfolds.

The time is 1879. Mr Peacock and his family have bought an island some way off the coast of New Zealand. Some Polynesian Islanders arrive on Monday Island to help the Peacocks turn it into a paradise. It was the dream of such a Utopia that drove the family there, but things are desperate for a while until Kalala and Solomona and the others appear.

The narrative is divided between two points of view, which belong to Kalala and Lizzie, the second Peacock daughter. There are six children at the beginning of the novel and a baby, Joseph, is born soon after they get there. Ada, Albert, Billy, Queenie and Gussie are the names of the others. Gradually, nature is brought somewhat under control and matters improve. Then Albert goes missing...

That's all I'm going to say about the plot, except that it's full of twists and turns and surprising development. It unfolds in tantalising ways, moving from one event to the next in a series of shocks and revelations that are breathtaking but also quite logical. You, as a reader, keep saying: yes. Yes, of course, I ought to have realised that.

In her answers to my questions that follow that review, Lydia Syson, who used to be one of our number on this blog, tells us that the story is based on her husband's family history. This gives a solid layer of fact and real events to the novel. She has also clearly fallen in love with Monday Island and she brings it so beautifully to life that we are there with the Peacocks, in this lush but unforgiving place. We get to know the landscape and the immensity and beauty of the ocean that surrounds the island.

Her greatest skill though is her ability to inhabit her characters. Kalala tells his story in the first person and that works perfectly, where it could easily have been embarrassing. I'm going to quote a passage from the beginning of the book to demonstrate:

High and dry we stand on deck on the big palagi ship called Esperanza, Auckland-bound, and the two-blooded deck boy from Samoa tell me as he passes, without a smile, that the Esperanza is word that signifies hope, in the language of the silver mines. Then on flies my mind, wayfinding without a body, all over and everywhere, wandering, wondering. How long will we voyage in this ever-cooling air, and see no other island?

Lizzie and her siblings are equally well-drawn. You miss their company when you turn the last page. And that's perhaps the greatest achievement of this novel: it stays with you. I've been haunted by it since I finished reading it. I hope very much that it gets the attention and praise it deserves.

Many thanks, before I ask these questions, to Lydia who's allowed me to use the photographs, and helped me with posting them here.)

1) How did the idea first come to you, and what has changed in the novel between your first impulse and the finished book?

Like my last three books, Mr. Peacock’s Possessions takes off from family history – but this time it’s my husband’s. On a visit from New Zealand, his aunt Madeleine told me the extraordinary story of her uncle’s family, the Bells, who in 1878 decided to make their home on an otherwise uninhabited Pacific Island, hundreds of miles from any other human settlement. Exceptionally remote, it was then called Sunday Island – now Raoul – and it’s the largest in the Kermadecs, a chain of small volcanic islands about halfway between Auckland and Tonga. My husband’s great-aunt was married to the youngest child, ‘King’, who was born on the island in 1889. Tom and Frederica Bell first arrived on Sunday Island in 1878 with six children aged from eleven to one, and high hopes for the future. The captain who brought them sailed away, promising to return in three months. They found their provisions were rotten and they never saw that ship again.

(Frederica Bell, Denham Bay, 1907/8)

I could see the possibilities for a novel almost as soon as Madeleine began talking, and I quizzed her furiously – she remembers it well! It turned out that a journalist had written a book about the ‘Crusoes’ of Sunday Island' in the 1950s, based on the memories of King’s sister Bessie, who was nine when they first landed.

But this was a very sanitised account, Madeleine warned me. The real father was even more brutal than the iron-willed ‘despot’ described by Elsie Morton. Morton’s book was gripping in the way survival narratives and island stories so often are: full of hardship and catastrophe, every disaster eventually overcome by hard work and bitter determination – and usually some hymns and prayers. But I found the holes in it more interesting than anything. Who were the unnamed Pacific Islanders who came to work for the Bells two years into the thirty-five they spent on Raoul? Why was one of these ordained?
(King Bell on Raoul Island, 1907/8when the first scientific expedition came to the Kermadecs.)
I picked away at different aspects of Oceania’s broader history. I explored the fascinating history of Niue in particular – named Savage Island by Captain Cook. I read Melville, Ballantyne, Stevenson and a variety of seafaring memoirs And I discovered a world in flux: missionaries, whalers, beachcombers, traders and work gangs criss-crossing the seas, land and people both seemingly up for grabs.

The island – so beautiful, so fertile and yet so treacherous - was a gift in terms of setting, plot and metaphor. Family relationships remained at the heart of the novel. But I became preoccupied with faith and doubt, blindness and insight. The parallels I found between the intimate world I was creating and the bigger historical picture allowed the book also to became an exploration of power and possession, and migration, forced and voluntary.

2) How long did it take you to write and what are your working methods? You have 4 children so I imagine juggling doesn’t begin to cover it.

I wish I could pretend I have a writing routine and religiously write x number of words a day. I don’t. Mr Peacock’s Possessions has been made possible by three years of a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellowship at The Courtauld Institute of Art. So I’ve been teaching for one or two days a week, and trying to research or write for the rest – but of course there are also school visits, CWISL events and organisation (Children’s Writers and Illustrators for Stories and Literacy - and the usual domestic demands faced by anyone who works freelance at home and has multiple teenagers. I have a fantasy of reaching to the floor for my laptop as soon as I wake up, not speaking to anyone, and writing for several hours in bed first thing in the morning. This never happens. But I do often go back to bed when the house has emptied, especially in winter, and I definitely do my best and most concentrated writing tucked up under a duvet at the top of our South London Victorian terrace, with a view of sky and treetops.I am devoted to the writing software Scrivener, which I use to keep my research in order and get a very rough first draft in place. I like to get a good sense of my chronology from the outset, but don’t necessarily write in order. (Scrivener makes this easier than it sounds, and takes the agony out of planning, and also restructuring when you realise it’s not quite working.)

This time I wrote the past tense sequences first – how the Peacock family arrive on the island, and the extreme challenges they faced in the first two years. The events here closely follow what actually happened to the Bell family, and as I started I imagined these sections might have something of the feel of a nineteenth-century adventure story for children. And then the weaving began. . . I started to develop Kalala’s first person present voice – more on that below – and this is intercut with the close third person perspective of Lizzie, Mr. Peacock’s golden girl. And all along beside this, crazy amounts of research – not just history, but linguistics, anthropology, psychology, ornithology, midwifery, botany, geology. . .

After nearly a year, I had the slabby clay of the first draft. My partner read it on his kindle on our summer holiday, and was gratifyingly entranced in canoes and buses and boats while we backpacked with the family around Nicaragua, and I looked at volcanoes and black sand and cloud forest and wondered how different these might be in the Pacific. (An exceptional summer holiday for us – we were meeting our eldest who had been travelling for 7 months.) Another few months followed of fairly substantial rewriting, during which I asked my agent to read just the first 5,000 words, mainly to get her reaction to the voice(s). Then it was time to send it to my new editor. Terrifyingly, but not unusually, she was not the person who’d commissioned the book. I was utterly convinced that my contract would be cancelled any day. I braced myself for weeks. But she loved it. And then the publication date moved back, and we had a great long period of time to work together on the manuscript, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Eleanor Dryden is an extraordinarily dedicated editor, prepared to spend hours discussing every nuance and layer, and brilliant at teasing out what she needed from me. She managed to be patient, demanding, ruthless and supportive in all the right ways. I can hardly even say how many drafts there were in total, but I know that under Eli’s guidance, I went on writing, re-writing and researching for another year before the book was ready to be typeset and shared further. Along the way I had feedback from my brother, my agent, an agency intern, a very old and very trusted friend,Tig Thomas, who very generously reads all my manuscripts just before line-editing stage and always improves them, and also from historian Mark Darby, whom I’d come to know by email after reviewing his Spanish Civil War book for The History Girls, and he read it with a New Zealander’s eye.

I didn’t think then I had the faintest hope of making it to New Zealand, let alone ‘my’ island, so I was particularly grateful to Mark. But to my amazement I ended up emailing my very last corrections in March from Auckland, still swaying from my voyage on the HMNZS Canterbury. Thanks to the Pew Trusts, who’ve been campaigning for years for a much-needed ocean sanctuary in the Kermadecs, [in late February I joined a crew of scientists, educators and young environmentalists on a Sir Peter Blake Trust expedition to Raoul. So now I know what colour the sea there really is and how flying fish behave; I’ve seen the giant limpets, muttonbirds, wideawakes, tropic birds, gropers and turtles in my book; I’ve swum with sharks; I’ve flown over the volcanic crater and I’ve watched the horizon for hours and days without seeing another vessel or habitable land. But, disappointingly, despite months of planning, biosecurity measures and lack of resources meant we were refused landing permits. So I never actually set foot on the island!

(Lydia Syson in the beautiful sea.)
So many different stages then. Seeing the finished hardback just a week ago was a glorious moment. If only – and most authors will sympathise - I hadn’t immediately spotted a typo. Mea culpa. My very final proofread was under difficult circumstances and a mortifying error crept unnoticed into my author’s note: the Maori name for New Zealand is of course spelled Aotearoa – ‘the Land of the Long White Cloud’.

3) Was it your intention to educate your readers in certain aspects of history that they may not have known about? No spoilers, but how the story unfolds reveals something surprising and horrifying...
Yes and no. I was horrified myself by what I learned, and I also wanted to suggest through the storytelling how easily horrific histories can become buried.

We often think of the nineteenth century as the great era of abolition and emancipation, but in fact the slave trade simply changed its name, its organisation, its victims and its locations. After the American Civil War, cotton and sugar production shifted to the Pacific. The people of the small scattered islands of Oceania were particularly vulnerable to exploitation. First the blackbirders came. Then the indentured labour recruiters. The Pacific Labour Trade tore families and communities violently apart, and far too many people have never been able to recover their ancestors’ stories. Slavery and human trafficking continue to thrive all over the world, including in the UK. Purely in terms of numbers, more people are enslaved now than at any time before in history. So though I never want to be didactic, actually, yes – I did hope to draw attention to all these things.

I’m in the middle of putting together an online bibliography for readers who want to follow up on any of my sources, as I have with all my books, and this should be available from publication day – May 17th. Of course I’d recommend reading Mr Peacock’s Possessions first, but after that this article offers excellent insight into New Zealand’s slaving history. It’s by Scott Hamilton, NZ historian and author of The StolenIsland (2016). Australia’s hidden history of slavery is explored here. And you can join Anti-Slavery International – the world’s oldest human rights organisation – here.

4) When I reviewed Jane Harris's SUGAR MONEY, I asked her whether she was nervous at reactions to her writing (very well) in the voice of a young man of different racial origin from her own. In these days of 'cultural appropriation' and the like, did this give you any pause at all? You write very beautifully partly from the point of view of a native Islander!

Thank you! And it certainly did.

As I began work on Mr. Peacock’s Possessions, the world of children’s publishing was waking up to the call for more diverse and inclusive representation. Young readers of all backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities urgently needed to see more characters in books who reflected their own lives and experiences. Protagonists, not token side-kicks. Most writers for children felt a shared responsibility to make this happen, with sensitivity and care, no matter what their own identity might be. Meanwhile, in adult publishing, a reverse move was taking place, for equally valid and important reasons. Writers whose colour and class give them easier access to a public voice through publication – including me – have been forced to think more carefully about what stories they have the right to tell. I always felt it was extremely important politically to put my young Pacific Islander, Kalala, at the centre of this story. I don’t want to overemphasise my own anguish – particularly in the context of the truly agonising histories I’m exploring here – but it was a huge dilemma. If, once it became an adult novel, I abandoned my attempt to create a convincing voice for Kalala, if I didn’t allow him to speak for himself, I risked marginalising him and all the Polynesian people in the book. Mr. Peacock’s Possessions could have become just another book about an encounter with the ‘other’ told through the eyes of an ‘innocent’ white girl. One predictable point of view. In rendering the entangled stories of two imagined groups of people meeting and living alongside each other on an invented version of a real island, I needed to portray the ways in which all my characters navigate between cultures. I wanted to draw upon and expose, but never, I hope, abuse the very real and horrific histories which inspired the novel, histories currently little known beyond academia. And I wanted readers to be completely swept up by these histories.

I write about other times and places because my circumstances mean most of my travels are necessarily in my head, and my explorations take place largely in libraries and archives. Of course I’d have loved to go to Niue. I couldn’t. I hope one day I will. I still can’t quite believe that at the very last minute I reached the Kermadecs.

I don’t expect all readers to agree, but it felt wrong to censor myself for fear of an anticipated judgment. And novels simply can’t be written by committee, so a book has to get to a certain stage before it can be shared. In the end, family circumstances in the last six months made it very hard for me to get the manuscript into the hands of the readers who mattered most to me, as I had planned. But before Mr Peacock’s Possessions went to print in the UK, I was overjoyed to be introduced to one very important reader - the multi-talented teacher and writer Ioane Aleke Fa’avae, an expert in the history, culture and language of Niue, and winner of the 2014 Creative NZ Pacific Heritage Award. Thanks to his warm blessing – and a spelling correction – my anxieties about the book’s reception have diminished considerably. And copies of the finished book are on their way to Niue now.

5) Can you speak at all of your next book?

I’m afraid not. No mystery…just don’t quite know myself yet.


michelle lovric said...

Lovely interview and great to see the pictures. I have read the book with enormous pleasure, and urge everyone to do the same!

Candy Gourlay said...

I am so excited to read this book! Thank you for this, it was fascinating and gasp inspiring!

Sue Purkiss said...

I thoroughly enjoyed Lydia's previous books, and look forward immensely to getting my hands on this one!

Bridget Marzo said...

Thanks for this fascinating background and interview! I look forward to reading the book.