An English writer hoped for paradise and found purgatory while living 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket and phone booth
Serpent in Paradise. By Dea Birkett. Anchor, 320 pp., $12.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Dea Birkett became enraptured with the idea of going to Pitcairn Island when, as a young writer living in London, she saw Mel Gibson in The Bounty. She knew it was nearly impossible to get permission to visit the remote settlement, a British overseas territory that had neither hotels nor an airstrip.
But Birkett persuaded the Royal Mail to sponsor her trip, booked passage on a chemical tanker and arranged to stay with a family. And in 1991 she lived for four months among the 38 residents of Pitcairn Island, the place where Fletcher Christian and other mutineers from the Bounty settled after casting Captain William Bligh adrift in 1789.
Birkett imagined that she might find a vestigial Eden on a volcanic crag in the South Pacific. Pitcairn lay 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket or pay phone booth, and kept in touch with the world by mail and ham radio. It had no cars or currency. The residents, mostly descendants of mutineers, shot breadfruit from trees with guns and carved replicas of the Bounty to trade for cooking oil or other necessities on ships that occasionally passed by on their way to New Zealand.
But life on Pitcairn was so harrowing that within days of her arrival, Birkett had skirted death at least twice. The island seethed with omens – a black albatross, a dead shark, an infestation of rats and the sound of gunfire thudding through the breadfruit-rich valleys. Its residents had suffered from centuries of isolation and physical and emotional inbreeding. Birkett’s host family was by turns warm and so frighteningly aloof that she wondered if they would save her if she had an accident.
Birkett gives such a chilling account of all this in Serpent in Paradise that a descendant of Fletcher Christian said, “I’d like to see her hanged.” Next to her adventures, the experiences of people like Frances Mayes and Elizabeth Gilbert look like visits to a Six Flags theme park. And yet, as fascinating this book is, it leaves the impression that its author knew more than she was telling.
Less than a decade after Serpent in Paradise appeared, the British government investigated charges that rape and child abuse were endemic on Pitcairn. The probe led to the convictions in 2004 of six of its adult male residents. The guilty included the son of Birkett’s host couple, who was living at home during her visit. Given that just over three dozen people inhabited Pitcairn, it’s hard to believe Birkett didn’t sense what was going on and that this doesn’t explain some fears that she ascribes to other causes. If she didn’t suspect all the rape and abuse, she was less astute than she seems. If she did know about it, she chose or was required to pull punches. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Birkett reveals far more about Pitcairn Island than any Hollywood screenplay. And Serpent in Paradise is the rare book that captures that a place at a pivotal moment in its history, a paradise on the eve of self-destruction.
Best line: Birkett writes of a note she received by mail from an islander: “I was the first recipient of a local letter on Pitcairn since the post office had been founded fifty years earlier.”
Worst line: Birkett’s account of her relationship with the island policeman raises more questions than it answers. It leaves the impression they had consensual one-night stand. In an article on her Web site (“My Hell in Paradise”), Birkett calls the relationship as “an affair” with a man who saw her as “easy prey.” She also includes many lines of conversation in Pitkern, a half-Polynesian, half-English language. Most are easy to understand in context, but a glossary would have helped with some.
Caveat lector: Everyone on Pitcairn called the dark-skinned police officer by his nickname, a racial slur, and Birkett reflects this in the book.
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Serpent in Paradise appears in the March 7, 2007, post directly below this one.
Published: August 1998 (Anchor paperback), September 1997 (Anchor hardcover).
Furthermore: Birkett also wrote the award-winning Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool: A Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (Gollancz, 1994), a memoir of her experiences as the only female crew member of a working cargo ship.
Links: You can find an account of the sexual-assault trial of the men in this book by going to www.wikipedia.org and searching the site for “Pitcairn rape trial of 2004.” The convicted received sentences ranging from community service to more than six years in prison, and they have exhausted their appeals. Birkett has several articles about the scandal on her site www.deabirkett.com, including a New York Times op-ed piece “Island of the Lost Girls” that summarizes the case.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.