The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish by Dido Butterworth and Tim Flannery

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The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish by Dido Butterworth and Tim Flannery

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: What could have been one of the most odd, humorous and clever pieces of fiction, unfortunately struggles by being too much of the first, and not enough of the others.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: July 2015
Publisher: Text Publishing Company
ISBN: 9781922079305

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Meet Archie Meek. He's about to leave the Venus Islands, where he's lived for the last five years, and return to Sydney, where he'll take his office in the museum and fill it with all the cultural artefacts he's found and wildlife he's plucked or pickled. That's not to ignore the fact he'll count as something quite alien himself, with his filled-out frame, nearly all-over suntan and totemic tattoo, in amongst other changes to his body. But what's this? When he gets back, he finds one of the main Venus Islands artefacts that caused him to go there in the first place, a huge, macabre ceremonial fetish mask, purloined as corporate artwork. And some of the curators he wishes to work alongside have vanished. Is the weird society of the museum he's returning to, perchance, even weirder, stranger and more violent than the cannibalistic society he's waving farewell to?

I so wanted this book to succeed. With the rarefied setting of the city between World Wars, and things like the Harbour Bridge only partway finished to help supplant the Victorian morals and character still too evident, there was a great scope for a knockabout fantasy adventure regarding the fetish mask. But there wasn't. Instead we get glimpses of greatness, and too much mundanity, in all senses, as we plod through the story of the museum staff's machinations.

I won't go into all that's wrong about the work. Suffice to say, there are too many curators introduced to us too quickly, and no character building beyond the key few; the book starts too oddly, so that we want to stay on the islands with their inhabitants, and it's not til chapter four that Archie even starts to warrant our sympathy; and it just works as a farcical melodrama of office politics, when so much more could have been done.

Amongst those flashes are several instances where the sense of humour actually worked, although I did little more than smirk when I wanted to laugh. The hopeful signs were the great, Dickensian names, such as Dr Abraham Trembley being the man in charge of jellyfish. But even so, I felt that was taken too far when a mineral turned up called Isleby Cummingtonite. Now, I know from having learnt some of the more extreme Scrabble words, that cummingtonite is a valid word (though I doubt it's ever been played in the game's history), and the afterword here proves that a heck of a lot of the drama here is based on historical fact. (The Bathurst meteorite here, that allegedly demolished a church in landing, is named after a science institute – not the real thing, but an homage to veracity at least.)

Which leads me to my ultimate conclusion about this book, that it just tries too hard. The whole artifice as to who wrote it (which adds NOTHING), the tricksy way it is grounded in reality in mind-boggling ways if we only could be brought to care, and the flawed way it strikes off from something as unusual as a tribal artefact to resort to office politics drama, show a lot of thought was present in turning in an unusual book, but the whole failed to work enough. I think it has scope for an Antipodean audience, for which it might all mean a bit more. To me, the awkward opening, the fact a hunting party made me speed-read three chapters, and the clumsy passages of time (especially where Archie's belle is concerned), all showed there was a need for much better editing to turn this into a silk purse. It's not quite a cow's ear, but it did disappoint. A curator's egg, perhaps.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

I saw this as being more along the lines of faux-period explorer fantasy A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan, which took two sequels to start to get as woolly as the title at hand.

Buy The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish by Dido Butterworth and Tim Flannery at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish by Dido Butterworth and Tim Flannery at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish by Dido Butterworth and Tim Flannery at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish by Dido Butterworth and Tim Flannery at Amazon.com.


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