Brilliantly bringing together two stories of travel, adventure and family secrets that bring our heroine and her ancestor to the South Pacific Islands, Ronald Wright delivers a truly believable tale told in two distinct voices that will hold your interest right to the end. Henderson was not a direct ancestor - his only child died during the second world war - but he was an uncle of sorts and Olivia's family lived in his house, which still displays random objects from the previous century and Henderson's travels. Olivia and her sister Lottie grew up being told by their mother that Frank Henderson had acquired it in Africa, during a disastrous military mission that lost him an eye. But when, after their mother's death, Olivia uncovers Henderson's papers, she learns the true story of the spear, and what happened when Henderson was a young lieutenant on a royal naval ship along with two grandsons of Queen Victoria, sailing through the South Pacific. Henderson's account and Olivia's own story converge to an enlightening truth that will link them together in a new and surprising way. Olivia and Henderson are two very different people, and their stories are not told in chronological order, but you won't have any difficulty in keeping track. Tahiti does not come across as an island paradise in Olivia's account; instead it seems an unfriendly place where everyone bemoans how much it's changed in the last twenty years - something they say every year. But even in Henderson's account, these islands are dangerous territories (this is complemented by another book I read after this one, John Boyne's Mutiny on the Bounty). Politics and an on-going colonialism play a big part, and both Henderson and Olivia shed light, in different ways, on conditions there - Henderson recounts something that a Mr Thurston, a kind of translator for the king of Fiji, says to them: "Justice for the Fijians is of greater consequence than cotton growing. The other thing I'll note, for myself more than anything, is how Olivia's discussions with her professor, whom she refers to as "Bob", about the classic novel Moby Dick, makes me want to read that book for the first time in my life. It did not feel like I was reading a novel; rather, Olivia could have been someone I learned about in a well-made Canadian documentary (and seriously, Canada excels at documentary film-making), Henderson a person who comes to life within the pages of a true memoir.
Coincidentally, a few years back, she also found in the basement of her ancestral home a number of notebooks penned by a man with some connection to the family (no one really knows what)--Frank Henderson, who journeyed the Pacific himself with Princes George and Eddy back in the 1880s. The book's pace never gets above slow, so saying that the pace increases tremendously two hundred or so pages in should tell you all you need to know about the first two hundred pages of this. Two hundred pages of glacially-paced writing are far better served when one is busy trying to figure out how much of the stuff about Henderson being captured by the Sofas in the 1870s and then running off to the South Pacific with two grandsons of Queen Vic is true.
Liv tells her daughter her life story, growing up in England, surrounded by the historical artifacts of her father's ancestor, Frank Henderson, brought back from his travels in Africa. But after Liv's mother's death, she discovers evidence that leads her suspect that her father (or is he?) didn't actually die during the war, and sets off to try to uncover the mystery behind his disappearance and her parentage. Liv intersperses her narrative by sharing excerpts from Frank Henderson's private journals as he travels with Queen Victoria's grandsons. Turns out Frank Henderson, who wasn't technically a blood relative, is in fact a blood relative when Liv discovers the truth of her parentage. How did Liv's mother meet Henderson's descendant?
The book took a few chapters to really ramp up and get into gear, and it was a bit pedestrian until then - characters I couldn't quite connect with, and a rather dull set of stories.
The modern one has Olivia, a rootless young woman imprisoned in Tahiti on a murder charge, writing her life story in the form of a letter to the daughter she gave up for adoption. The period story, 100 years earlier, is the journal of a relative of Olivias, Frank Henderson, who sailed the South Seas with a crew that included Princes George and Edward, Queen Victorias grandsons, one destined to die young, the other to marry his brothers fiancée and be crowned in Westminster Abbey.
Images emphasize the farness of that other country, make it seem more outlandish than it really was, a silent film where troops march jerkily to battle and die like puppets.