Book review: Mr Peacock's Possessions by Lydia Syson

A remarkably rich family history has provided the inspiration for a string of fascinating young adult novels from critically acclaimed author Lydia Syson.

Tuesday, 29th May 2018, 4:23 pm
Updated Tuesday, 29th May 2018, 4:27 pm
Mr Peacocks Possessions by Lydia Syson
Mr Peacocks Possessions by Lydia Syson

But for her adult literary fiction debut, the former BBC World Service Radio producer has turned to an episode in her New Zealand-born husband’s family history for a thrilling tale of human survival, courage, cruelty and the tensions of family life when placed under almost intolerable stress.

Syson is a master of atmosphere, and lyrical prose juxtaposed with visceral reality, and this gripping blend of The Poisonwood Bible, Lord of the Flies and a dark shade of Swiss Family Robinson is set in 1879 on a remote, uninhabited Pacific island where the Peacocks, a family of English-origin settlers, is struggling to tame savage nature and find enough food to stay alive.

When a gang of Polynesian islanders is shipped in to help clear the land for planting, the disappearance of the family’s eldest, damaged son is the catalyst for a spectacular unravelling of all the moral and social certitudes that have underpinned the life of Joseph Peacock, a man as proud and swaggering as his name suggests.

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As the past unfolds and the island’s dark secrets are revealed, the parents, their long-suffering children and the native workers become caught up in a paradise that is increasingly lost, and the consequences for them all are more disturbing and far-reaching than any of them could have imagined.

Oceania in 1879 is not for the faint-hearted. Fifteen-year-old Lizzie Peacock and her five siblings have been leading a tough life after their parents moved them from their home in New Zealand to settle on the isolated, volcanic Monday Island, a place their father – a man with ‘power of purpose’ – had promised them would ‘change everything for the family.’

For two years they have struggled with the harsh reality of trying to make this wild, unforgiving place a paradise they can call their own but food is short and they need help from outside. When at last a ship appears, there are six Pacific islanders on board and they have travelled eight hundred miles across the ocean in search of work and new horizons.

The newcomers include Christian converts Solomona, a teacher and pastor with a ‘splintered heart’ in need of healing, and his brother Kalala who hopes to one day return to his home with ‘bounty’ and make his family proud.

But Mr Peacock, the island’s owner who is now reduced to wearing rags and with ‘a brow that shines with sweat,’ is ‘always quickly to be obeyed’ and Kalala is unnerved by the way he goes ‘from light to dark like a forest walk.’

It seems to him they have ‘broken into the middle of a story and now we are part of it.’ But will it be a story with a happy ending?

For Lizzie, the arrival of the native workers, known as kanakas, is ‘a glorious new start… the day they bury every setback,’ but when her older brother Albert, a vulnerable boy, vanishes, it sets in motion an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

In their search for Albert, the Peacocks and the newcomers together uncover far more than they were looking for… and they are all forced to question their deepest convictions.

Syson’s depiction of a fragile, fractured community, cast adrift in an unforgiving place where nature rules and humans are vulnerable, is one of the highlights of an evocative and thought-provoking story packed with acute observation, drama and vivid imagery.

Told principally through the dual narratives of Lizzie and Kalala, Mr Peacock’s Possessions offers an intriguing and tension-packed exploration of family dynamics, colonialism, loss of innocence, and the perilous power of both possession and obsession.

As relationships are tested beyond endurance and Mr Peacock’s dreams of creating an Eden and taking his place in history turn into a nightmare, the story explodes into a shocking revelation that will leave readers reeling.

Beautifully written, immaculately researched and powerfully imagined…

(Zaffre, hardback, £12.99)