Friday, 9 July 2010

Visitants - Randolph Stow

In perfect tune with the setting (Papua New Guinea), this seems to be a languorous work. Each of the main participants in the story take their turns to tell short fragments, building a complex, multi-coloured, mosaic. This too adds to the atmosphere, painting a picture of life in tropical climes, hopping from island to island, walking through the humid air, taking everything at a gentle pace.

But this is a deceptive novel. Using a real event as its starting point (the Boianai Mission UFO sightings of June 1959), the book explores ideas of what it is to be alien, to be a visitant, the effect of different cultures on one another, and how that impacts on individuals, especially those living in an alien environment. That said, this is not science fiction. The UFO event is a trigger, but everything else is very much down to earth and part of everyday life.

The characters are beautifully drawn; all the subtle detail extracted through the relationships each has with the others in the small communities through which they move. And whilst the book moves at a gentle pace it soon becomes clear that there are strong, deadly undercurrents. The notion of alienness runs at many levels. This is made especially clear by one of the characters toward the end and the way in which this reflected in the events is a masterful piece of story-telling.

It is a book that stays in the mind for a long time, with images clinging like exotic and heady perfume. Deeply moving, in places shocking, there is an alienness in the almost clinical observation of people and events. Yet the book manages at the same time to be warm and sympathetic. Well worth reading.