Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for September is Michael Fitzgerald’s The Pacific Room (Transit Lounge). The novel tells of the last days of Tusitala, ‘the teller of tales’, as Robert Louis Stevenson became known in Samoa where he chose to die. In 1892 Girolamo Nerli travels from Sydney by steamer to Apia, with the intention of capturing something of Jekyll and Hyde in his portrait of the famous author. Nerli’s presence sets in train a disturbing sequence of events. More than a century later, art historian Lewis Wakefield comes to Samoa to research the painting of Tusitala’s portrait by the long-forgotten Italian artist. On hiatus from his bipolar medication, Lewis is freed to confront the powerful reality of all the desires and demons that R. L. Stevenson couldn’t control. Lewis’s personal journey is shadowed by the story of the lovable Teuila, a so-called fa‘afafine (‘in the manner of a woman’), and the spirit of Stevenson’s servant boy, Sosimo. Set in an evocative tropical landscape haunted by the lives and spirits which drift across it, The Pacific Room is both a love letter to Samoa and a lush and tender exploration of artistic creation, of secret passions and merging dualities.
The higher they go up the road, the bigger the houses. They pass a Mormon college and churches of seemingly every denomination – Baha’i and Seventh-day Adventist – but no people. Coming to the gates of what looks like the biggest house of all, the taxi slows. An ancient tree canopy obscures the house from the road but for a glimpse of red tin roof which sweeps up in imitation of the mountain behind.
‘Why have you stopped?’ Lewis asks.
The driver buries his head in his hands before looking up, his fingers tugging the skin around his eyes. ‘I can’t go any further – it’s a sacred place,’ he says. ‘Some Samoans are still afraid to go in there.’
Lewis looks at the overgrown gates: they seem to contain more than a house. Their heaviness marks a point of transition, he thinks, not unlike Henry Jekyll’s red baize curtains parting to another world. Through the gates he imagines a spillage of stories, mineral-rich, which are carried down the streams that fall from the mountain behind.
The taxi’s engine is still running as the driver tells Lewis the story of the aitu fafine. Their bodies begin to vibrate with the story, as the image of the spirit’s red flowing hair is carried out through the open window to find shape in the branches bobbing with si‘usi‘u pusi outside.
‘The wind can bring her,’ the driver says, ‘or the sound of singing along a stream, and heaven help the man who falls for her and follows her through the forest. He feels light-headed at first. Then –’ He brings some fingers up to Lewis’s eyes, pressing them so they turn white. ‘And then he goes –’ The driver clicks the bones in his fingers. ‘Like that, something in his brain just goes.’
The driver is now looking at the mountain that rears up behind the house.
‘Why did he come to Samoa?’ the driver asks. ‘Was it for the peace and quiet, so no one could steal his thoughts? But then why did he become involved with the chiefs, with everything here? Why did he want to be buried on top of the mountain, to be carried up by Samoans, when he knew it was difficult to get to?’
The driver’s knee is knocking against the gearstick now. ‘His dream was to look out over Upolu. They say it is a beautiful view of the sea from up there, but I think it was more symbolic. I think he wanted to be High Chief.’
The man’s voice has dropped almost to a whisper. ‘Up there no one can steal your thoughts.’
Lewis is still staring into the gap between the trees as the taxi drives off. It’s inscrutable, that absence of leaves, and as his eyes adapt to the darkness, a streak of red bursts through, sweeping low before flying off.
The bird makes him think of the Scottish writer and the flash of vermillion caught in his painted eye; how two rainy seasons after his last sitting he met with a convulsion as violent and as final as Henry Jekyll’s in the book.
Mayonnaise. Of all things, he’d been helping his wife on the back verandah, whisking the egg yolk with the oil and tasting the sharpness of the lime, when the bowl fell suddenly from his hands, sending a pale trajectory across the dark gardenia hedge.
‘Do I look strange?’
These were his last recorded words. That night Sosimo kissed his hands and laid them across his breast, knitting his fingers together like flowers. The next morning the household watched his coffin, held aloft by a dozen brown hands, disappear into an ocean of leaves. Every now and then, at a turn of the mountain, it would emerge from the trees, bobbing higher and higher, floating free.
The Pacific Room is available now at Readings.