The Devil is White by William Palmer

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The Devil is White by William Palmer

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: Have you ever wondered how Goldman's Lord of the Flies would have worked if the characters were adults instead of children? Palmer's novel is wider in scope, but follows a similar theme of how quickly Utopia can become dystopia.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224096829

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William Golding's Lord of the Flies is widely considered to be one of the great classics of all time and it's been a personal favourite of mine ever since I was first handed it at school. Reading the copy on the back of William Palmer's The Devil is White, I was reasonably confident that something similar might happen with this book and I was not disappointed.

Just off the West coast of Africa is the island of Muranda. It is uninhabited, but previous attempts at settling it mean there are buildings available for use. There is wild game for hunting, fruits on the trees and the climate suggests that the land could be cultivated. A group of gentlemen, not liking the slavery rules they are living under in late Eighteenth Century England, have an idea of claiming this island as a kind of Utopia where there are no slaves and everyone lives in comfort and equality.

Plans proceed apace, but they soon discover that whilst the destination may seem idyllic, the journey is not as easy as they had hoped. The ship is crowded and illness is prevalent. Some of the passengers aren't happy at the continuing requirement for rules and authority and there is a hint of resentment and rebellion aboard. When the island turns out to not be the paradise they were promised and that a fair amount of work is required to make it inhabitable to begin with, things start falling apart more rapidly.

I can't decide what I liked most about the book. The story is a fantastic idea and it does give a Lord of the Flies feel, where you get to see how adults would react in a similar situation. Although those involved have chosen to go to the island, you can see the breaking down of normal human society and how quickly dissension in the ranks can come about. All the potential challenges that could be faced - illness, starvation, idleness, the weather - are faced here. Utopia is shown to be a great idea in principle, but you also get to see how quickly principles fade when they butt up against reality.

The characters are very well done, too. The Muranda Committee did well in putting people together with different skill sets and Palmer has done wonderfully in bringing them all to life and not muddling them all together. The pompousness of Sir George comes up against the belligerence of Meares very well. Coupland struggles not to be a captain whilst Hook and Jackson fail to find themselves as equals after the life they had before. I was particularly enamoured with the hope that Reverend Tolchard maintained that he would be able to convert the natives and how Jeavons managed to hold on to his ideals, even as his hopes for his social position drifted ever downwards. There is an ensemble cast here, but Palmer keeps them all perfectly separated and there is never a moment where the reader gets confused between them, as can happen amongst large groups of characters.

Perhaps the best thing here, however, is the quality of the writing. Palmer has found the rhythm of late eighteenth century language and life perfectly with his narrative. The language has the slightly more formal and stiffer tone that was prevalent at the time. The more rigid structure of society and the slower, tougher pace of life are also well reflected. This is a novel of its time and perfectly reflects the time it is set in. Setting a novel in the time frame and maintaining its authenticity must be as great a challenge as the potential colonists of Muranda faced, but Palmer meets and maintains the challenge with greater success that his characters.

You can't go into this book expecting anything that you would get from a modern novel, as it's so perfectly set in its time, both in ideas and in execution. But for those who enjoy something of a little slower pace, yet still incredibly readable and especially fans of Lord of the Flies and the like, this is a wonderful read. In today's world, it's impossible to experience what the characters here were going through, but thanks to Palmer's writing, it's certainly possible to get very close to it and I was enthralled and captivated by the end.

For more of a combination between modern day and 18th Century Britain, try Dark Thread by Pauline Chandler

Buy The Devil is White by William Palmer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Devil is White by William Palmer at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Devil is White by William Palmer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Devil is White by William Palmer at Amazon.com.


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