By Ronald Wright
Published by Henry Holt
March 2002; 0-374-10205-9; 368 pages
Women's Prison, Arue. April, 1990
A note is all I have from you. I think of it as yours despite the formal stationery and wary tone: We have recently been contacted by a young lady whose particulars appear to match your own. It found me here just before Christmas -- a few weeks after my arrest.
I'd left my name with the contact agency several years ago, long enough to grow discouraged and then push discouragement to the back of my mind. So your note was a shock, though I'd invited it -- a shock followed by relief and joy. You were alive! You wanted us to find each other. You weren't hiding, weren't exacting a sullen revenge that might last until I died.
Particulars. They mean dates, ages, numbers on certificates. These aren't always reliable in our family, as I shall tell. But there can be no mistake; only your particulars could possibly "appear" to match my own. This young lady is you. And this older one is me, who gave you life at sixteen, and gave you away.
Who are you now? And how and what and where? I'm brimming with questions. I'm ready for the best, the worst, the in-between. Like most of us you're probably in between. And twenty-two is so damn young, but for the first time in your life you're feeling old. You're thinking of endings and beginnings, which is why you've begun to look for me. But maybe you haven't yet made up your mind you'll even see me. So I'll go first: Olivia Wyvern, Cell 15. Your mother.
There's this tiresome obstacle to our reunion: I'm imprisoned on the far side of the world (assuming you're still in Britain). It's not a bad jail. How many have palm trees in the yard, French bread, an ocean view? And a good friend is moving heaven and earth to get me out of it. My government -- I'm a Canadian now -- is sympathetic. The consul here is on my side. Ottawa is asking questions about the charge, the so-called evidence. People are beginning to see that I've been framed.
It can't be easy finding your mother after all these years, only to learn she stands accused of murder -- well, for complice, which means "accessory." But truly there was no murder. Or if there was it had nothing to do with me. I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She would say that, wouldn't she? Will you allow me the presumption of innocence, which is more than I've had from the Napoleonic Code? (Tahiti's a French colony.) I am not guilty. But I do plead guilty to a charge concerning you: I threw away the life we might have lived together. No law sets penalties for that; it was a crime of the will and the heart. Both you the innocent and I the guilty have served over twenty years for it.
The people in London who matched our particulars have also offered advice on how to proceed. Phone calls out of the blue are not recommended. Start with a letter, they say -- enclose photos, snippets of hair, take your time. Phone calls and meetings will come later. Phoning is difficult here, anyway, and a meeting out of the question. But I have plenty of time. So this is a long letter to prepare you for the next step, if and when.
Already I've a lot to thank you for. Without your note I might still be stewing in the bath of outrage, fear, and hate in which I fell at my arrest. You've kept me busy writing this since January. They let me spend four hours a day in the library. The light's good in the morning, a breeze comes through the bars, mynah birds squabble in the palms, and it's the only room without a reek of sewer. This place is so French: good food, bad drains. The washbasin in my cell is a mixed blessing -- no plug or trap to keep down smells and cockroaches. Until Pua showed me the remedy (chewing gum and a coin), I thought I might be gassed in my sleep or nibbled raw. Tahitian roaches are as big as mice and they go for the dead skin on your feet.
I don't mean to make too much of these discomforts. My hotel in Papeete was much the same, at ninety dollars a night. In French Polynesia they know how to let off nuclear weapons but they've never grasped the rudiments of plumbing.
I know I should start with I love you. But how can I say that without it ringing false, the sudden intimacy of salesmen and seducers? We're strangers, you and I, despite our blood. I don't even know your name. And I may as well tell you straight that I've never been very good at love, though I am working on it. Often I think love stalled in me the day you went away.
So this won't be that kind of letter. What I can give you, for now, is my story. And in return I hope someday you'll give me yours. I'll try to stick to the point, though it doesn't come easily -- my mind's a sackful of cats and they're all clawing their way out at once. Be patient while I let them go in an order that makes sense, at least to me. Mine isn't the usual tale of a girlish mistake with a pimply boy in the bicycle shed.
This stretches across a hundred years and half the world. I'll start with me, but you must hear from Frank Henderson too. I'm enclosing copies of his papers. More than a century ago, when he was about your age, he sailed to the South Seas aboard a warship. It's ultimately because of him that I'm here now.
We seem to be a family of writers -- diarists, memoirists -- the kind with secrets to dribble onto paper and hoard away. For whom, I wonder. For posterity? Or as a form of exorcism? Of course you may decide, after reading what I have to say, that you want nothing to do with me. How far can we go with genes; do they call to one another like the deeps? Damn the genes, let me choose my friends, and to hell with blood relations. I can hear myself saying something like that in your position. That's your right, and if it's your choice I'll respect it. But if ever you change your mind, know that I'll never hide from you again.
I was kept in the dark all my life, until after my mother died. You mustn't wait that long. I thought I knew my past but didn't, and this ignorance is half to blame for many things. Hear me out and at least you'll be able to make an informed decision after learning what I've learnt, much of it just recently, about who we are. Knowing is in our power. And knowing may kindle love, which is not.
In the beginning we were four: my parents, my sister Lottie, and me. Soon we became three, when Jon, my father, failed to come home from the Korean War. He was a pilot in the RAF, until then a brave and lucky one who'd flown against Hitler long before Lottie and I were born. We've always called him Jon, perhaps because Mother did, or because Daddy wouldn't do for a father who was . . . missing. We were a family of three women for so many years that it seemed to us (though never to our mother) the natural order of things, an order without men.
I didn't leave home until my twenties, but once I did I kept going -- from England to Canada, a land where pasts are easily forgotten. I've settled in the west, on the coast of British Columbia, where I make a living making films. Nothing grand. You won't see my name in lights, though you might spot me now and then if you look at documentary credits. This too, for all its precariousness, had become an order of its own.
Then Mother died.
© 2002 Ronald Wright
Two tales of passion and intrigue -- separated by a century and by half the globe -- are deftly woven together in a drama of intricate design and beauty.
Olivia, a Canadian filmmaker, is writing from a Tahitian jail, piecing together, her troubled past and her family's buried history for the daughter she gave up to adoption years before. The search for her own father, a pilot missing since the Korean War, has, brought her to the South Seas and landed her behind bars on a trumped-up murder charge. In the stillness of her cell, Olivia ponders the meaning of the secret journals she discovered after her mother's death. Their author is her ancestor Frank Henderson, a British naval officer who, as a young man, came to these same waters a hundred years before.
The journals tell of his terrifying adventures in West Africa and an extraordinary three-year voyage to Polynesia with Queen Victoria's grandsons -- Prince George (later George V) and his brother Prince Eddy, who would die young and disgraced. Frank's long-ago revelations, which include a fleeting love affair with a Polynesian girl, lead Olivia to understand her father's disappearance and her mother's strange attitude toward the past.
characters and a deep understanding of the landscape and culture of the
South Seas, Henderson's Spear tells a mesmerizing story about the patterns
of history and the accidents of love.
Spear [is] a Gauguin canvas and a volcanic tremor of a novel.
"The intertwined mysteries . . . are deftly dovetailed, and, as one might expect of a writer first known for his travel books, the scenic description are lively and sharp. . . . Henderson's Spear is an intriguing, warm-toned, well-written and spirited novel, a credit to its tradition." --John Spurling, Times Literary Supplement (London)
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Ronald Wright was born in 1948 and educated at Cambridge University. A failed academic, trucker and farmer he has been supported by his pen since 1980. After five non-fiction books, he published his critically acclaimed first novel, A Scientific Romance, which won Britain's David Higham Prize for Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book. He also reviews often for the Times Literary Supplement (U.K.) and Punch (U.K.). His nonfiction includes Stolen Continents, an award-winning history of the Americas, and Time Among the Maya. He lives in Port Hope, Ontario.