“Mr Peacock’s Possessions” by Lydia Syson

Thanks to Bonnier Zaffre and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

You could be forgiven for thinking this novel would follow in a lovely jolly Swiss Family Robinson type fashion but you’d be very, very wrong. Think of it as less Swiss Family Robinson, more… The Shining.

The novel follows the story of the nomadic Peacock family. It centres particularly on Lizzie, a girl on the cusp of womanhood, and her father Joseph. The other members of the Peacock family play supporting roles and through them we gain an understanding of the complicated relationships between the characters, and gain an insight into some of the issues lurking under the surface. We also have the perspective of Kalala, one of six Pacific Islanders brought to the island to work – one of Mr Peacock’s “Possessions”.

The narrative switches back and forth in time throughout the story and through this we begin to understand more about the background of the more than slightly dysfunctional Peacock family. Lizzie idolises her father and is blind to much of his tyranny towards others in the family. Joseph’s anger is largely directed towards his son, Albert, who he sees as a disappointing weakling. It is his relationship with, and treatment of Albert that drives the main plotline running through the novel. As the mystery unfolds, themes around loss, grief, misguided loyalty and familial violence are explored.

The novel also explores the subject of slavery and the real-life practice of Kanaka ‘Blackbirding’ which was something I had never heard of before reading this book. Blackbirding was the practice of enslaving (often by force and/or deception) Pacific islanders. This practice took place during the 19th and continued into the early 20th century (!).

The island setting is lush and abundant, but also dark and sinister and the echoes of the island’s violent history still linger. Despite its initial promises, the island seems to be devoid of much life and the Peacocks suffer numerous hardships in their struggle to survive and are at points on the brink of starvation.

This is a well-written, exhaustively researched novel which really surprised me with how much I was pulled into the story. There is a gripping mystery, compelling characters and the novel also provided a glimpse into an aspect of history I was completely unaware of. Kalala and his companions are referred to as “Mr Peacock’s Possessions” towards the beginning of the novel but it seemed to me that Joseph’s real possessions were his children and the tyrannical hold he exerts over them.

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