The Pacific Room
Michael Fitzgerald’s debut, The Pacific Room, is putatively a novel about the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson. After several years travelling around the Pacific, the Scottish author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde spent the last four years of his life in Samoa, on a 160-hectare estate. He became known to the locals as Tusitala (“the teller of tales”), became embroiled in local politics, and was buried there, on top of a mountain.
But in reality Stevenson’s time in Samoa functions largely as a backdrop to several other stories Fitzgerald wishes to tell. One of these concerns Italian painter Girolamo Nerli, who is commissioned to paint Tusitala’s portrait and becomes entangled with various members of the household, including Australian servant Mary and Samoan “servant boy” Sosimo. And there are several contemporary stories, one concerning two local fa’afafine (Samoan transgender women), and another about a young Australian art historian, Lewis Wakefield, who travels to Samoa to research the subject of his PhD, Nerli’s portrait of Tusitala.
As for all of the others here, Lewis’s story hinges on ideas of dissolving or shifting identities, and as such constitutes a subtle metafictional nod to Jekyll and Hyde. With a twin brother who died when he was a teenager, and bipolar disorder, Lewis is struggling with various demons and doubles. But when he comes off his medication in Samoa, he feels “loosened, like stretched elastic, without the desire to spring back to his former life or shape”. Released for the first time “from the pang of need” his research and his burgeoning desires converge.
For all of its apparent popularity as an organising principle, using multiple, interwoven storylines comes with significant risk. It asks the reader to commit several times over to a new fictional world, with some of these inevitably being more compelling than others, and there is a lot of setting up to do before any of them can move beyond the superficial.
Fitzgerald handles his various storylines deftly, and he writes compressed, evocative prose, but the limitations of his approach are felt, with many of these stories only becoming as interesting or as complex as they need to be quite close to the end. But the biggest shame is Stevenson himself, who remains a distant figure, leaving you suspecting there are more stories yet to be told about his time in Samoa. SH
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 15, 2017 as "Michael Fitzgerald, The Pacific Room ". Subscribe here.