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Serpent In Paradise (Pb) Paperback – 22 May 1998
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Pitcairn in the South Pacific is home to 38 islanders, the descendants of the "Bounty" mutineers. After two years' persistence and a 4000-mile sea voyage, Dea Birkett realized her dream of reaching Pitcairn. This is an account of her travels.
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Serpents In Paradise is a perfectly good read. It is well written, if a little clumsy here and there. Personally, I blame the editor. It's a travel book, relating the history and experience of the author's quest to Pitcairn island. At the time of writing, just over two hundred years had elapsed since sine the famous mutineers on The Bounty had stumbled upon a wrongly-mapped island in the south Pacific. Thus they found their own perfect hiding place, so they burned their bridges, in their case a ship. It is largely their descendents who still inhabit Pitcairn and it was in this society that Dea Birkett sought her own personal paradise.
Getting to and from Pitcairn is an adventure in itself. It has no regular services and no harbour. A visitor has to make an application to the island's authorities - basically the entire population - for permission to land. And Pitcairn islanders don't like writers. Dea Birkett's ruse to gain access was a project on the Island's postal service, whose stamps and franks are both rare and in high demand from collectors. Then you have to find a freighter, usually out of New Zealand, over three thousand miles distant, that happens to be charting a course near to Pitcairn and is planning to pause there.
When this happens, the Island's entire population turns out. There are supplies to be delivered, fish to sell to the ship, trinkets to sell to the crew. Occasionally, there are people to transfer up or down the rope ladder. The author made it into the pitching longboat below, but initially failed in several other feats during her stay.
What she did accomplish was the creation of a rather light, impressionistic view of life within a dwindling island community. We are on first name terms form the start, but strangely most of the characters we meet retain an anonymity. As we read on, an explanation emerges. Dea Birkett eventually records how this community usually seems to act as a single entity. They share tasks, forage, fish and cultivate in groups. Decisions emerge out of communally chewing over an issue, apparently without ever confronting it directly. They are driven by their religion, Seventh Day Adventism, to impose restrictions on possibility, but then not everyone takes the rules seriously, hence the local division of inhabitants into "old and young", effectively traditional and modern. But the tradition came from foreigners in the late nineteenth century, and the modern involves imported beer.
And it was into this largely biblically-literal society that Dea Birkett brought her serpent. As in the original, it was temptation embodied. Forbidden fruit were tasted. There was a fall from Grace. And yet the author does not tell us whether there were consequences as a result of her island fling. She does, however, continue the quote at the start of this review as follows: "Dreams should be nurtured and elaborated upon; they should never be visited. By going to Pitcairn, I had vanquished the perfect place within myself."
And thus we reach the nub of the problem. With the printed word, the medium is not the message. This always has to be disentangled, revealed and understood. In Serpent In Paradise, we have a perfectly good read, a well-described travel experience, but it may be too focused on a journey within to really take us there.
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
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