The Pacific Room is an interesting and clever novel. The author slowly unravels the tale, and involves the reader in the lives of the main characters, and the customs and culture that surrounds them. The writing is almost lyrical, and blends in beautifully with the swaying palms and the movement of the ocean. As with the ocean, there is an undercurrent, which is mesmerizing to hear, and slow to be revealed.
The story uncovers the final years of “Tusitala, the teller of tales”, as Robert Louis Stevenson was known. He chose to live out his final years in Samoa with his wife and family, embracing the relief that the warmth gave him while he suffered from Tuberculosis. And yet, the focus of the story is on an art historian, Lewis Wakefield, who is doing his honours Thesis. He is trying to track down information about an Italian artist called Girolamo Nerli. Nerli wrote to Stevenson and said that he wanted to compose a portrait of the author in his home in Samoa. This was many years before Lewis knew of him. After the artist completed the portrait he vanished into obscurity.
Lewis is curious about the painter, Stevenson and his American wife. The story then switches to follow Nerli, as he arrives at the house of the “Teller of Tales”. He meets the step children, one of whom informs him that the map in the story “Treasure Island,” was his work. He is also shown a portrait of Stevenson and his wife done by John Singer Seargent.
At this point, we begin to meet some of the local people who are described softly and carefully. Their Island home has melded them into gentle characters living simple, almost spiritual lives. Lewis is invited to share in a festival which celebrated the courage of a man who was leading a peaceful protest and was shot down by police. Here we learn about sights, the sounds, the smells of this wonderful tropical island, and as Lewis says “His senses are too busy to worry.”
The movement between Lewis’s accurate observations of the Island, its people, and the artist’s impression of the household and the model he is painting is smooth. It is not at all difficult to move from time past to time present, and the wonderful use of flowing language and linking of ideas aids this. Gradually as issues are revealed they merge seamlessly with what we already know.
The delight in this story is following the main characters and understanding what motivates them. It almost seems that the portrait is secondary to the emergence of the written word. The controlled and stylish language moves us seamlessly between culture and history. This has been called “A love letter to Samoa,” and the delightful setting certainly adds to the story and the actions of the characters.