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on May 1, 2001
I wonder if it's possible to learn about Pitcairn Island and not want to go there. During hectic days when I feel overwhelmed and unappreciated by the endless rat race striving that makes up much of my life, my thoughts turn to the joys and happiness of casting it all away and living on an island far away, a place like Pitcairn. Birkett took such feelings to their logical end by arranging to live on Pitcairn. This book describes her time on the island.
As travel writing goes, Birkett's text is interesting. For the community of around 40 people, life on Pitcairn is controlled by the sea and by the smallness of the island. Birkett's text offers a view of a life removed, indeed cutoff, from much of what we consider normal, natural, and expected. The Pitcairn Islanders live in a state of being self-sufficient and at the same time dependent upon the whims of passing ships. In these days when technology seems to draw many of us closer together and to make the world smaller, Pitcairn seems more isolated. There used to be many more ships passing the island in the days before airplanes were in widespread use for Pacific routes.
The book is also a study of the difficulties an outsider faces in becoming part of such a community. Birkett reports that she often found herself at a loss to understand the true ins and out of the community. On Pitcairn, as in so many other places, the community has its own code, its own flow, understandable to insiders and baffling to outsiders. In a sense, it's not different from any other community in the world. What makes it different is that Pitcairn is the stuff of legend and the focus of fantasy.
Birkett's book is the story of the unfortunate intrusion of reality in the search for Paradise. There is a long tradition of such writing, and the common theme is that "utopia" is, as the derivation of the word itself suggests, "no place." During Birkett's time, she went from being an outsider trying to understand the ins and outs of Pitcairn life to being an outsider vaguely afraid of violence from the islanders. In the end, she was anxiously waiting for the next passing ship to pick her up and take her home.
Yet, the dream of Paradise does not die, even though we know that there is no such place, even as the result of experience. In the wee hours, in unexpected moments, we all long for the place that can never be.
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on January 20, 2000
A great read, very insightful as to how an isolated society can be. The book kind of makes you nervous about goingto Pitcairn. But, it is better to know. The author spared us an idyllic account,and I found that much more interesting than the usual voyage book. SHealso gave a lot of very interesting facts about the religion, food, work, government, etc,. In fact, I saw most of the people she named on the Pitcairn shopping mall on the Internet, so she was telling the truth about their handicrafts, anyway, I felt like I knew them all.
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on August 5, 2000
It's funny to see the bias of "readers" who can't connect with what's being written. A read of the sleeve will tell you this isn't a travel, sociological, anthropological or any other kind of 'behind the veil' writing. Ms. Birkett has written a book that follows exactly what she describes at the outset: her own personal, spontaneous journey to an acknowledged fantasy. Her experiences on Pitcairn Island dispell quickly such a fantasy world. This lesson seems to have upset many readers despite the title being an obvious reference to herself. The highly collectivized, anti-individualized prisoners of Pitcairn/oblivion ritually refuse to answer even the simplest questions or equally spontaneously ignore her completely is a clear scuttling of the touchy-feely environmentalist fallacy of the Garden of Eden. Her book is ultimately about herself (the title?????) because it is her own self-motivated whim that took her there. So what? It might have been interwoven with other views, if the islander's facade of friendliness wasn't a complete sham. As for claims that she was self-absorbed, what "acclaimed" travel writer isn't narcisistic? Chatwin? Marco Polo? Birkett is brutally honest and her contribution is worthwhile, even important if only for the fact that she dispells the notion of today's globe-hopping my-room-with-an-"X" naive belief that you can vicariously understand a people or a culture at all from ANY distance outside the peoples themselves, day-tourist trinket buyers and reviewers to the contrary. Boo. Hoo. The grumbling armchair adventurers would do well to follow in her footsteps before venting well out of their league. Good 'un D.B.
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on February 27, 2000
It's a rare book that calls me to re-read it as soon as I close the final page. Dea Birkett's Serpent in Paradise gave me just that reaction. Anyone who has ever felt even remote interest in the aftermath of the mutiny on HMAV Bounty should find much enlightenment, as well as a few surprises, in reading about the author's experiment in living on Pitcarin Island for several months among the descendents of the mutineers.
The book is not without error, contradictions and unanswered questions. The one glaring error deals with the author's transit of the Panama Canal. She states as factual the common misconception that the Canal's locomotives pull vessels through the locks. In fact, transiting vessels move at all times under their own power. The locomotives' function is to keep the vessel centered between the concrete walls of the locks.
At times the author contradicts herself. She initially states that "not one of the adult islanders had any of their own teeth left" (p.127). Later she modifies this to: "most had no teeth of their own" (p. 248). Then, near the end of the book, she relates that Pitcairners never touch. "I couldn't remember having seen anyone hold anyone else, not even a mother her baby" (p. 274). And yet, on her first setting foot on the island she was smothered in a hug. "I felt as if I were being bounced off a wall of cushions" (p. 57). Then, on her departure: "One by one, the Pitcairners hugged me..." (p.288). These inconsistencies are probably the result of the author's attempts to coordinate disparate notes made under trying conditions late at night in a fast moving situation.
The real teasers are omissions of answers to questions that naturally occur to the curious reader with travel experience. How do the Pitcairners wear their hair, and how do they get it that way? Does each cut his own; do they assist one another, or is there a designated barber? We're told their toilet facilities are out-houses called "duncans." But no mention is made as to whether they have toilet tissue (a product by no means universally known or used by Pacific islanders). The author is not squeamish about subjects potentially more stomach-turning, such as her many spider, rat and maggot observations. Even more puzzling by its absence is how the inhabitants of this small island dispose of what must be thousands of empty tin cans accumulated over the course of a year. Many more pages remain to be written before a true Pitcairn fan will be satisfied.
Nevertheless, the book as a whole offers opens many more doors than it leaves closed or ajar. The development of the official language called "Pitkern," derived from a mix of 18th Century British, mixed from the upper class (officers) and the commoners (the crew members), amalgamated with Tahitian pidgin, could be a study in itself. I found myself almost incorporating some of the terms into my own vocabulary! All in all, Ms. Birkett has done a highly creditable job under the most arduous of circumstances. I can only hope she will do a sequel to fill in the blanks, even if it requires her to undertake a return engagement to "paradise."
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on October 2, 1998
It was fascinating to read about a place I shall never visit, and people who have developed a way of living and coping with each other on lines paralell but dissimilar to our own. In some ways, this society could almost - but not quite - be compared to a monastic environment in that they are both enclosed and because those understand what is expected of them and behave in a way which respects the boundaries of others. Ms Birkett inveigls her way into this society by deceit, poses as a researcher when she is in fact using this opportunity to record impressions so denigrating that they border on the obcene. Her ill-judged affair with a local married man is (predictably) quickly known by the other islanders (how likely is it that such an affair could be kept secret in a community of 37 people?) and in doing so causes irreparable hurt to the nicest character in the book, a local who tried to court her.
My overriding impression was that the author was deeply rooted in the travel writing of the British colonial era - and the assumptions that colonised people are primitive, and their lives to be used - in this case, processed into a book. Writing a book which alleges that the islanders might be trying to murder her is as poisonous, it its way, as plundering natural resources or polluting the land. I hope that the islanders will forget this. My heart goes out to them. Although the author can write and has some occasional flashes of inslight, she is a person with whom I would like to be stranded...
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on April 19, 1998
As more people go to places that were previously remote, travel writing becomes more and more contrived resulting in books like "Across India by Elephant". Pitcairn Island, however, is probably one of the few places left on earth that is truly remote. Dea Birkett not only gets there (no mean feat in itself) but manages to stay for several months and gets to know the islanders. The book is fascinating as a study of a community that is truly unique; less than 40 people, almost all related to each other, living thousands of miles from anywhere and dependent largely on the kindness of random passing ships and distant dreamers. In that sense the book is pretty hard to put down. Unfortunately, the author's constant negativity soon becomes distracting. She has few kind things to say about anyone, and descriptions of the islanders, their words, their actions, either hint of disparagement or are outright critical. This is a bit galling given that she lied about her purpose to obtain permission to visit, and one of the families opened their house to a her, a complete stranger, for several months. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that the islanders don't really mean anything to the author other than as a medium for her own experiences; as something to write about. Toward the end she has an affair with one of the islanders, a married man whose family is off-island. Although she denies it at least twice when confronted about it in person, she has no qualms about writing about it in her book. Classy, huh?
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on January 6, 1998
I really enjoyed reading this book and can't remember when I finished a book in such a short amount of time. The author did a great job documenting her attraction to this fascinating island, it's wonderful history and it's peculiar people and culture. It turned out to be a real page-turner for me and her experience of being there became very vivid. However, after the first two-thirds of the book the author became a bit vindictive and sniveled about her personal conflicts with some of the Islanders and how she was not able to fit in. It is true that there are a number of faults/quirks in their culture and many people would have a very difficult time adjusting, but it reached the point where I thought I was reading the diary of a teenager. None the less, I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel and adventure books.
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on February 26, 2000
I read this book in Spanish (good translation), so I write my review in Spanish: el libro es interesante, fácil de leer, divertido e instructivo. Se delinea un curioso paralelismo, seguramente preconcebido, entre los asesinatos en la isla tras el motín y el final de la historia de Dea. Pero casi todo él gira en torno a la propia Dea, una persona insensible, destructiva, egocéntrica, paranoica y neurótica. Las víctimas son los habitantes de Pitcairn esta vez. "El viajero no hace el viaje, el viaje lo hace a él". Esta máxima no puede aplicarse a Dea Birkett. Con una persona más adulta, culta e inteligente se habría conseguido un libro más rico y profundo. De todas formas el libro merece la pena. Best
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on March 28, 2000
Dea Birkett's adventures and sensitive approach to being a guest on Pitcairn were fascinating to read. I found it hard to put her book down, and her courage is admirable. Makes one want to read more exciting personal accounts of faraway places....
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on July 4, 2000
This book is worth reading, not so much for a view of life on Pictcairn Island or for a history of The Bounty, but rather because of the fascinating and powerfully disturbing portrait of a completely self absorbed author. She lacks the most basic respect for the subject she rights about. The gall of this woman. She lies about he reason for visiting the island and is welcomed as a guest into these peoples homes and community, and then had the nerve to criticize the intimate details of their lives. At the same time she behaves like a spoiled adolescent who expects to be universally accepted and the center of attention. It's no wonder they didn't like her.
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