The Pacific Room by Michael Fitzgerald
Transit Lounge, 2017. ISBN 9780995359550
(Age: Senior secondary - Adult) Recommended. The famous Italian painter Girolamo Nerli travelled to Samoa in 1892 to paint a portrait of the author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, hoping to capture an apprehension of a state of mind that was 'not truly one but truly two'. The present day researcher Lewis Wakefield travels to Samoa to find out about the life of the author depicted in the painting - Robert Louis Stevenson, known as Tusitala, the teller of tales. Wakefield is one of twin brothers, his brother now dead, and is medicating for bipolar disorder. He is intrigued by the relationship Stevenson had with his Somoan servant Sosimo, and with the Somoan people who came to build a road to Stevenson's house, called the Road of the Loving Heart. In Samoa, Wakefield meets beautiful women who he discovers to be fa'afafine - between two genders 'in the manner of woman'. One of the fa'afafine, Teuila, a descendant of Sosimo, prepares to attend the wedding of her lover Henry to another.
This idea of dualities is an undercurrent throughout the novel, and we come to understand that beautiful lush Somoa may not be a place so much as a state of mind. And it is probably this that Stevenson felt so comfortable with; Somoa was sustenance for his inspiration as well as for his suffering health.
The novel is not biography but a shifting kaleidoscope of impressions of people, images and place, dream-like in quality, drawing us into a different experience that is at the heart of Samoa - another kind of Pacific Room, not an archive but a blending of sensations and memories. As readers, we come to experience something of the magic of Samoa as well.