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Fiction Review Unexpected outcomes in Swiss Family Robinson update

Mr Peacock’s Possessions
by Lydia Syson
(Zaffre Publishing, £12.99)

LYDIA SYSON’S earlier books for young adults, A World Between Us, about British involvement in the Spanish civil war and the Paris Commune in Liberty’s Fire, were rightly praised for their historical accuracy and dramatic narratives.

Her latest appears to straddle both young and adult fiction but cannot decide which age group it wishes to address.

The writer again tackles a critical historical period, this time the late 19th century in Pacific Oceana, where the British Empire still holds sway. Victoria is on the throne, slavery is still being practised and fundamentalist belief becomes a useful alibi to defend imperial exploits and promote blinkered thinking and inhumanity.

Syson's is a Swiss Family Robinson scenario, in which the Peacocks, a poor white New Zealand family, take up the challenge of trying to build a new life on a small uninhabited island far out in the Pacific Ocean but soon find they need their “Man Fridays” to help them survive. It's a somewhat fantastical scenario and a certain suspension of disbelief is required.

While the book raises questions about colonialism, empire, evangelising Christianity and family as well as cultural relationships, I'd have liked more meat on the themes Syson touches on as well as on the characters who seem rather undernourished, in both senses of the word.

The slow-paced first half of the book is more descriptive than dramatic, partly because the characters appear to have been given a more symbolic significance than endowed with their own three-dimensional personalities and varying psychological make-ups.
But the second half, a gripping yarn with unexpected outcomes, takes off. Syson writes engagingly and evocatively but I could have done with a deeper historical framing and less description of life on the island which is, of necessity, rather monotonous.



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