Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 14, 2011

Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith

Bright and Distant ShoresI discovered this author because Bright and Distant Shores been short-listed for the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards – and I shall certainly be chasing up Smith’s previous novels down at the library.  He’s a wonderful story-teller, combining a rollicking style, an intriguing love story and food for thought about the impact of collectors on indigenous societies during the 18th century Enlightenment.

Owen Graves is a most interesting hero.  Bright and Distant Shores is a many-layered quest – for in the quest to  trade in South Pacific artefacts,  the orphaned Owen is seeking a turn-of-the-century identity to transcend his impoverished background and make himself a worthy husband for an heiress.  His problem is that Adelaide is committed to the notion of human rights for all, and that doesn’t square nicely with the contract Owen has signed with the insurance mogul who’s financing the quest.  Hale Gray has demanded that Owen also bring back some ‘savages’ for an ‘exhibition’ to take place on the rooftop of the skyscraper that’s about (briefly) to be the tallest in Chicago.  (He’s also insisted that Owen take along Gray’s disappointing son Jethro, to ‘make a man’ of him).

So from the outset there are numerous dilemmas for the flawed hero – and for the reader – to consider.  How much, and when, to tell a future wife about a morally questionable project.   How much, and when, to protect an insensitive fool from his own stupidity.   How to reconcile the quest for knowledge with pillaging indigenous people of their traditional crafts, weaponry and religious symbols.  And when they are jaded by worthless trinkets, is any artefact worth trading for guns?

It is the Poumetans – Argus and his sister Malina – who personalise the quandary.  When they cross paths, Owen takes Argus aboard because he’s useful, but they become friends despite their differences.  He takes Malina aboard because Argus won’t go without her, but fails to consider the risk to a native woman on board a ship full of lascivious seamen and their lusty captain.  His interest is in Argus: he likes listening to him read Kipling and Dickens and he admires the way that Argus conducts sophisticated negotiations during trading.  ‘He speaks English better than I do‘, Owen tells Adelaide and his respect for the man conflicts with his need for the money that he thinks he needs to win Adelaide.   Owen’s journey to moral ruin and Adelaide’s reaction to his behaviour impels the story along: will he or won’t he?  will she or won’t she? It kept me riveted into the long hours of the night because I had to find out what happened!

This is a fine story in the grand tradition of story-telling.  It’s accessible easy-reading which fans of historical fiction would enjoy, but there’s much more to it than that.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

PS If you haven’t already voted for the Premier’s Literary Awards, visit the Wheeler Centre to cast your vote.  The awards will be announced on September 6th.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Dominic Smith
Title: Bright and Distant Shores
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2010
ISBN:9781742374161
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Availability:
Fishpond: Bright and Distant Shores


Responses

  1. I’ve just finished reading this, and I really enjoyed it too. It works on so many levels- beautiful writing, strong and complex characters, social and political commentary.

    • It is good, isn’t it? I also liked The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre…

  2. […] the name Dominic Smith seems familiar, it’s perhaps because his 2010 novel Bright and Distant Shores, was short-listed for the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the 2012 Adelaide Festival […]


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