SERPENT IN PARADISE by Dea Birkett

SERPENT IN PARADISE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Beguiled by the romance of the South Seas, a young Briton wangles her way to the renowned but seldom visited Pitcairn Island, home to the descendants of Captain Bligh's mutinous crew. Among the most isolated spots on earth, Pitcairn Island lies well away from shipping lanes, but the resourceful Birkett, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Britain and America, found sponsorship and hitched a ride on a chemical tanker headed for New Zealand that made a brief stopover at the two-and-a-half-square-mile island. In breezily witty fashion, Birkett describes an idiosyncratic collection of 38 islanders whose mixed Polynesian and British ancestry has resulted in rare combinations of physical features and a unique Pitcairnese dialect--something of a cross between archaic English and South Sea languages. With no regular channel to the outside world, the islanders are generally self-sustaining, relying on the occasional ship for precious commodities such as eggs or cooking oil. Birkett proves adept at learning the islanders' crafts (basket weaving and carving), driving their three-wheeled motorcycles, and hiking up and down the steep landscape. To please her adopted family, she regularly attends church (in 1886, the entire population became Seventh Day Adventists), eschews alcohol (until she finds the in-group), and above all else, as the islanders consider themselves misunderstood by the rest of the world, conceals the fact that she is a writer. To her dismay, she learns that the Pitcairnese are ultimately unwilling to admit her to their society, and worse, her hosts slander her behind her back and the other islanders spy on her activities. Finally, their hostility and threatening behavior cause Birkett to flee on a passing tanker. Birkett's wryly, sometimes wickedly observant commentary drives this entertaining account, but one is also chilled by the degree to which a society will shun outsiders. A rare and instructive work.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday