Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bright and Distant Shores

Set in the late 1800’s, Dominic Smith’s third novel, Bright and Distant Shores follows a Heart of Darkness template. It is the kind of historical fiction that takes men out of their natural elements, puts them in worlds where they should never be and then adds a crisis.

Following a vogue of the time a Chicago insurance kingpin Hale Gray finances an expedition to the South Seas to gather up an array of Melanesian artifacts with which to decorate his new skyscraper. Seems the perfect collection to celebrate the latest World’s Tallest Building, right? Along with the weapons, bowls and other crafts the expedition is also charged with bringing back several natives. Hmmm…

Enter the historical novel’s required orphan, Owen. Owen is the son of a late demolitions expert from the South Side.  A previous trip to Melanesia brought Owen to the attention of Gray and that led to him to hire Owen to lead a new voyage to Melanesia in order to plunder. Owen leaves the girl he loves behind and off he goes. Trouble starts almost immediately. The crew is made up of ex-cons and Jethro the spoiled son of Gray who is brought on as the expedition’s resident naturalist despite his lack of any useful experience in that area.

Owen is not happy about Gray’s insistence that some natives, related by blood, be brought back to Chicago. However despite Owens misgivings Argus Niu, a failed warrior turned Protestant  mission houseboy and his sister Malini are selected to make the return trip along with the handicrafts and wild animals. Once in the city Argus and Malini are forced to perform in racist and degrading parodies of native life.

The history in Bright and Distant Shores is interesting, the characters are strong with good backstories but it is in the blurring of worlds that this novel really excels. We start out knowing where the divide is between civilization and the wild and then Dominic Smith slowly erases that line. Bright and Distant Shores is impressively propelled by writing that entertains and questions.

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