"No. Nawa (never) read. All ha books full of s__t. People write bad things about Pitcairn in books. Them people who go write books on Pitcairn should go wipe (i.e. emphatically go away or, perhaps, be struck dead)." - The Pitcairn "librarian" on being asked by Dea Birkett if she enjoyed reading
First off, let me say that I'm awarding five stars to SERPENT IN PARADISE because it does what I think a successful travel essay should do, i.e. grandly transport me to a faraway place that I shall never see in person, but which, due to the descriptive skills of the writer, I can envision clearly in my mind's eye, thank you very much.
English writer Birkett became fascinated with Pitcairn, the remote British colony and island home of a subpopulation of the descendents of the Bounty mutineers, while viewing a screening of "The Bounty" starring Mel Gibson. (A larger group resides on the somewhat bigger Norfolk Island isolated in its own expanse of ocean north of New Zealand.) After almost two years of dreaming of visiting the place, she managed to book passage on a Norwegian chemical tanker scheduled to steam by. Thus, after having falsely fibbed in her landing application that she represented Royal Mail International, Dea clambered ashore to live for several months among the island's thirty-eight inhabitants.
The author has been pilloried in other reviews, which have described her as being flawed, foolish, insecure, contemptible, self-serving, shallow, deceitful, condescending, screwy, voyeuristic, narcissistic, and a gossip. Well, gee, that pretty much describes, on one point or another, the flip side of just about everyone, doesn't it? Get over it! And, I could add, that the reader can infer from SERPENT IN PARADISE that the Pitcairners themselves are tribal, petty, suspicious, compulsive, repressed, and eccentric. But, I don't hold those against them because they're also traits of the human condition that balance out the nobler ones, also possessed by all concerned, both author and subjects. And let's ignore for the duration of this review the convictions of child molestation recently found against several Pitcairn males by the British authorities. (At least Dea's one night stand with a married islander was consensual sex between two lonely adults. Hey, I'll bet that's never happened before.) So, now what?
The most glaring deficiency of this book is the lack of a picture section. However, I don't hold this against Burkett because there are no 24-hour film processors on Pitcairn, and I expect that whipping out a camera and snapping away would have caused the author to be pitched off the jetty and told to swim for home. Rather, look on the Web for "official" island sites that also include photo images. Or better, zero in on "Pitcairn Island" on Google Earth and be amazed that people can happily live their entire lives on a life raft so small. As a fun exercise, try to match the structures in Adamstown as seen on Google with Dea's map of the place.
I admire the author for making the tremendous effort to get out and about. SERPENT IN PARADISE is a fascinating read for the armchair traveler, perhaps better than actually being there.
"We all hold a place within out hearts - a perfect place - which is in the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength; we can always retreat to its perfection. My mistake was to go there. Dreams should be nurtured and elaborated upon; they should never be visited. By going to Pitcairn, I had vanquished the perfect place within myself." - Dea Birkett