Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 6, 2017

The Pacific Room, by Michael Fitzgerald

The Pacific RoomIt’s just coincidence, but Michael Fitzgerald’s The Pacific Room – a novel loosely based around the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson – is being published in the same year as the biographical Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa by Joseph Farrell.  It was interesting to have read the bio first, because it made RLS more familiar to me than if I’d relied on the novel alone.

The Pacific Room is not, however, primarily about RLS, though allusions to his stories are woven throughout the novel.  The book begins in the reading room of the Mitchell Library in Sydney, where PhD candidate Lewis Wakefield is researching his obsession with a portrait of RLS, painted a century earlier by an Italian artist called Girolamo Nerli.  At the Mitchell he finds a small pencil drawing, the portrait in its original guise, rendered not in oil but in pencil, in rehearsal for the real thing.

Lewis (whose first name is an alternative spelling of the middle name of Stevenson) is a man very much alone in the world.  His sixteen-year-old twin brother and parents were killed when their sightseeing plane flew into a mountain during a white-out in Antarctica.  Lewis would have been on that plane too if not for schoolboy sporting commitments; he was subsequently brought up by his Aunt Agatha and studied art history in Dunedin New Zealand where his interest is diverted from Von Guerard and Buvelot to the elusive painter Nerli.  After Aunt Agatha’s death, he takes up a position in a Sydney university, and as the novel opens he is on his way to Samoa for further research about the painting.

Lewis is also bi-polar, and in the belief that creativity can be freed by not taking his medication, he ventures to Samoa to experience a different reality.

This experiment with a different reality made me wonder if Fitzgerald was exoticising Samoan culture.  It wasn’t clear to me why shedding medication for a bi-polar condition was ok in Samoa and not in Australia.  Stevenson was able to adopt a relaxed lifestyle in Samoa because he was living in the colonial era, could employ servants and live like a lord of the manor.  Lewis is another rich westerner able to indulge himself in a place that is presented as being more accepting of difference…

Anyway…. the novel moves back and forth in time from 1892, the last year of Stevenson’s short life and the year that Nerli painted the portrait, to the present.  This is not necessarily confusing as the time shifts are always signalled in some way, with naming of the 19th century colonial characters in particular, mostly referring to them as the writer, the painter, the American wife,  the stepson and so on, but sometimes by their Samoan names such as Tusitala (‘teller of tales’); Tusiata (‘sketcher of shadows’), and so on.

In the present day Teuila and her friends are fa’afafine (‘in the manner of a woman’) and throughout the novel Fitzgerald explores gender identity as fluid and duality of personhood as in Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde.  He hints at a relationship between Stevenson and his servant Sosimo, (making more of the marital difficulties between Stevenson and his wife than in Farrell’s book).  He also plays with past and present, with events in the past bleeding through into the present, as when a page torn from Nerli’s sketchbook is passed down through the female line of Sosimo’s family.  This sketch of RLS is benign until an earth tremor smashes the glass of its frame and its spirit is released, much like the genie in the bottle, which must then be buried in order to exorcise the power which causes a restlessness of spirit.

The possibilities of relationships are central to the novel, but unresolved.  On the one hand we are told that Teuila’s parents were comfortable with the change in her gender identity because they already had two sons, and were gaining a longed-for daughter‘In our culture’, she says, ‘ it comes as naturally as breathing – opening up to the fa’afafine side, to the possibility of something more.’ But on the other hand Lewis’s driver warns him off pursuing Wilhelmina, because she and others like her at the nightclub are ‘moral degenerates‘.   And the fraught relationship between Henry and Teuila, which can apparently never result in marriage even if he does abandon Shema, who he’s been destined to marry since childhood, seemed unresolved at the end of the novel, even though I read the book twice, taking copious notes the second time.

I should say, however, that I didn’t mind being confused, because Fitzgerald’s writing is exquisite.  His landscapes are lush, and I liked the cunning allusions to Stevenson’s stories which amplify the theme of duality.

This is a sequence in which we learn about the Samoan lovers Henry and Teuila:

Until the final year at school she and Henry had circled each other like reef fish.  Then, too small to play rugby, Henry was chosen to represent his class at the annual charity concert, and it was Teuila he turned to for guidance – to sharpen his songs and sartorial style, was the official reason.  But deep down he seemed to be after one of those long slow stares that take you in, without judgement.

On Saturday afternoons, when Teuila’s mother was in town playing bingo, he allowed her to shape him like a piece of material draped across her mannequin.

[…]

He performed admirably, as it transpired, but as far as both their families were concerned that was that.  End of story.  Their destinies had already been foretold: for Teuila, a desk job at the local travel agency; for Henry, a weekly gig with a dance troupe while waiting for his naval enlistment to come through.

In the months that followed, when their families deigned to keep the two of them apart, he was the genie that only came out at night – a hallucinated, longed-for presence. During her long days at the travel agency there was rarely a time her mind didn’t rub at the image of him, and she would stretch this moment out with a cigarette, and then another, watching his imp-like shape form in the smarting haze of the roadside barbecue outside.  (p.85)

Those references to a genie, to rubbing at an image, and to his imp-like shape are all drawn from Stevenson’s story of The Bottle-Imp, a genie who promises happiness but is really a curse because the soul of whoever dies with it in his possession is forfeit to hell.

Like a novel by Brian Castro, (who wrote the blurb) The Pacific Room is one which reveals more of its secrets the more often it is read.

There are other reviews at

and an interview with the author at Booklover Book Reviews

Author: Michael Fitzgerald
Title: The Pacific Room
Publisher: Transit Lounge 2017
ISBN: 9780995359550
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge.


Responses

  1. Lisa: I knew a woman who stopped her bi-polar meds to write so perhaps there’s an argument about the creativity thing (It wasn’t a good plan as it turned out, btw).

    • Well, I’m the first to admit that I have only a tabloid understanding of the issue: stories in the media about people going off their meds and then going berserk with a knife – that can’t be the whole story and of course we’re only hearing about cases that end in disaster. But I wasn’t really thinking of the possible risk to self and/or others, I was thinking about fictionalising a place as a sort of paradise where everything is fine and real life can be jettisoned. Like those movies where India is a place where geriatrics can go and the ageing process will suddenly miraculously be halted.

      • I understand where you are coming from. She stopped her meds because she was more creative w/o them which seemed to be true in her case. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.

        • I remember when the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest came out (in the 80s??) there was a general reassessment of diagnosing people who were ‘different in some way’ as mentally ill, and the practice of sedating them all to keep them biddable in institutions was stopped. I’m not saying the book triggered the change, just that the two things were more or less contemporaneous. But what the book made clear for a general readership was that the meds then used squashed personality and deadened experience for the people taking them. So maybe that’s what Fitzgerald is on about it, but whether it applies to something as serious as being bipolar and you can just take a holiday from your meds if you want to, well, I don’t know.

  2. Interesting Manguel wrote a novel about Stevenson in the Pacific as well

    • Hi Stu, thanks for dropping by. What was that one called?

      • Stevenson under the palm trees

  3. That’s so tired. A novel dropping backwards and forwards between a research project and the period being researched. Must be something you learn in creative writing school. I want a straight forward I did this and then this happened novel. Sometimes, anyway.


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