South Seas Serendipity
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking Penguin, 2013
The Sun is God, by Adrian McKinty
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Sometimes one book leads to another—interest, once piqued, causes us to seek out others in the same vein. Rarer, though, are the books that are bundled together by chance. I thought that today I would write a review of three books that came together for me recently in exactly this kind of way.
The first, Darwin’s Armada, was one that I read in a more official capacity than the others for a biography website that has to date not gone live. The book describes the voyages of four men who went to sea as naturalists, the first being Charles Darwin, and the subsequent explorers being the ones who would later help champion his theory of evolution—Alfred Wallace indeed having come up with it independently. Although the book spends a good deal of time on the evidence they accumulated, it is also a glorious compendium of seafaring tales, and, complete with maps, takes us along on their well-documented voyages. Although they range farther afield than this, all do spend some time in the South Sea, and part of the pleasure of this book is following the travels through what were at the time very exotic climes.
When I started The Signature of All Things for my reading group, it felt at first unaccountably familiar. Henry Whittaker, hard scrabbling youth, finding his only hope of rising in the world—not to mention escape hanging—to embark on Captain Cook’s third voyage, partly to observe the work of the ship’s botanist? Oh, yes. That was familiar ground. The main portion of the story concerns Whittaker’s daughter, Alma, who for much of the book is confined to the vast estate her father subsequently builds in the New World, but without meaning to reveal too much, she too ultimately has a South Seas adventure, not to mention having more than a passing interest in Darwin, and even an encounter with one of the four famous adventurers mentioned above.
In Darwin’s Armada, the third voyage, that of Thomas Hooker, takes him up the east coast of Australia in the late 1840s, eventually to find him crossing the Torres Straits to encounter the people of New Guinea. As I would read anything the Irish crime writer Adrian McKinty wrote, I therefore found myself doubly eager to get my hands on The Sun is God, which takes him far from his usual topics in exploring the strange and historically real cult of a bunch of German, coconut eating nudists in 1906, who deliberately exiled themselves to Kabokon Island in what was then German New Guinea. Suffice to say that these are not exactly the indigenous people that Huxley encountered half a century before him, but the rites of this tribe are as strange as any the earlier explorers may have encountered. Things did go horribly and mysteriously wrong on this island, and McKinty’s novel is simply one conjecture about what might have happened because we’ll probably never know. Nevertheless, it makes a whopping good yarn.