I’d never read anything by William Palmer – unti I got to review his novel The Devil Is White for the Historical Novel Review, some time ago.
And it was a surprise.
The story begins in 1792 England, with a bunch of entusiasts bent on founding their own colonial utopia on an island off the Western coast of Africa – a free, slaveless and democratic utopia, based on hard work, merit and honest interaction with the coastal tribes.
True, the coastal tribes happily thrive on the slave trade – but only for lack of proper morals, a state of things the settlers’ good example and conversion to Christianism are bound to change…
Yes, they are that clueless – at least some of them.
Because it takes us little to discern, side by side with the starry-eyed idealists like Captain Coupland, aristocratic poet Caspar Jeavons and the Reverend Tolchard, some less than disinterested characters, such as governor-to-be Sir George Whitcroft, or the fugitive jailbird Meares.
And we also realise that all of them – quixotic or otherwise – are supremely careless about their venture. Nobody ever set foot on the island, nobody wonders why the Portuguese gave up the place after just a few years, nobody spends a thought for the wet season…
By page 7, we know disaster is bound to happen – but the characters don’t. We watch in horriefied fascination as they tumble to their fate. We read Caspar’s letters, interspersed with the omniscient narrative, and a handful of other voices. And we grow to understand more and more Mr. Knox, the sardonic merchant (of nobody quite knows what) who plays interpreter and nurse to this heedless band. And we observe as trouble heaps on trouble. And we wonder at what point idealism and perseverance become madness.
All is told in crisp, elegant language, and the cruelty of the island towards its would-be settlers is described with apparent detachment – but beneath the polished surface, the criss-crossing of narrating voices creates depths of complexity and dramatic irony.
This is a wonderful, intelligent, cruel tale of thwarted purpose and human nature – not esperially encouraging, but a very good one.