Stevenson Under the Palm Trees

Written by Alberto Manguel
Review by Adelaida Lower

“He stopped for a moment, partly because of the pain and partly because of the horror that the story produced in him, but then he carried on, driven by a stronger need…He covered twenty pages without a single erasure.” Thus, bestselling author Alberto Manguel (A History of Reading) describes how Robert Louis Stevenson, his protagonist, writes a story that horrifies Fanny, his wife. Does that story echo the subsequent rape and murder of a young Samoan girl? Is Stevenson guilty of the crime?

Manguel draws from the letters and novels of R. L. Stevenson and concocts a perfectly-paced fictional tale exploring the connections between an author and his work. Stevenson’s own whimsical woodcuts illustrate the text. There are echoes of Conrad and Stevenson’s own work (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in particular). Madness, exorcism, colonialism, questions about reality and fiction pop up in the narrative. The setting is a troubled paradise, a place with a “scorching mountainside, female shapes… swaying flame trees,” where the ailing author battles a “shadow with a life of its own.” Seldom does a tale so slim say so much. Wonderful.