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on 24 May 2012
Alberto Manguel is probably best known for his books about books, which include A History of Reading and The Library at Night. Despite my love of anything bookish, I haven't read him before, so I decided to start small with this slim little novella about the final months of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Set around Stevenson's home in the village of Vailima, on the Samoan island of Upolu, it relies upon the same concept of duality that Stevenson himself utilises in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales of Terror (Penguin Classics). In the book, Stevenson meets a Scottish missionary, a rather odious man called Mr Baker, on the beach and finds himself caught up in a religious and ideological battle against Baker's Puritanical sensibilities. But all is not quite as it seems, and the reader is left to figure out who is wreaking havoc upon the Samoan islanders - Stevenson or Baker?

It was interesting to learn about the end of Stevenson's life, and how the local villagers welcomed him into their community. The vibrancy of the culture is vividly evoked in spare, finely honed prose; the flowers, the music, the sensuality of Samoan life come alive under Manguel's pen through careful snapshots of imagery and description. There are some interesting moments as Stevenson and Baker argue about dreams, reality and the nature of religion, though I found them a little obtuse at times. Sometimes it just felt a little too pretentious - like Manguel was writing with future literature students in mind, rather than readers - and I was left frustrated by the rapid and inconclusive ending.

Perhaps a reader more familiar with Stevenson's life and works would gain more satisfaction from Manguel's tribute than I did, I don't know. At the very least, I can say that this was a quick and intriguing little read, and that it's inspired me to pick up more of Stevenson's books and to delve a little deeper into his life and travels. A gateway to bigger and better things, perhaps?!
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on 17 January 2012
This is one of those books, that when you're reading it, you stop, turn it over in your hand as though looking for the trick, like some magic act, you saw it happen, you were real close, but ......? This book is including notes and woodcuts (Stevenson's own) only 105 pages long and yet Alberto Manguel manage to pack in so much as it focuses on Robert Louis Stevenson's last days dying of consumption on a tropical island. It plays with the idea of moral duality as in Stevenson's own Novella (Jekyll and Hyde), is Baker real or some Edward Hyde persona of Stevenson's allowed free reign whilst he slept. Also the writers attitude to the indigenous population as childlike innocents whose amoral existence was counterpoint to his 18th century Scottish Calvinist upbringing. That Alberto Manguel has managed to conjure up through Stevenson's own Tales (The Beach of Falesa), letters and biography a beautiful little book that plays with many ideas and questions concerning sensuality and repression, waking and dreaming, plus the whole craft of writing itself. Like his mentor Jorge Luis Borges, Manguel seems to place his own reading centre stage in his writing, by which I mean his dominant subject matter are books themselves, not as some influence on his writing but as the subject of it. If I played the game of who I would invite to some fictitious dinner party, Alberto Manguel' s name would be high on that list, as he appears to be the epitome of a representative of the Reading Life.
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VINE VOICEon 11 February 2009
An odd little novella about Robert Louis Stevenson; this edition is lushly produced with posh covers and illustrated with some of Stevenson's own woodcuts (at 105 pages of big text it needs to justify its price tag!).

It's a story based on Stevenson's last days in Samoa as he is dying of tuberculosis. After his meeting with a newly arrived Scottish missionary, bad things start to happen and Stevenson is drawn into the events in a way such that in his ill state he can't be sure what's happening.

A powerful and slightly strange little story that echoes RLS's own work. Interesting but I would have preferred a longer novel or collection of stories.
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on 2 December 2008
This is an intriguing little volume that's apparently loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson's correspondence during his last few years. It's evocative and believable, though I'm not sure (if it's as fictionalised as it seems to be) why it needed to be based on a real person.
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