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Onyx reviews: The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 04/27/2015

Paul Gauguin was not the only famous person of an artistic bent to retreat to the Pacific Islands. Robert Louis Stevenson (Louis to his friends and family) spent his final years in Samoa, a country with a remarkable lack of books and a temperate climate that was kinder to his frail health than that of his native Scotland. 

The author of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island and Kidnapped took a deep interest in island politics, but also continued to write during this self-imposed exile between 1890 and his death in 1894. These years are significant to Matthew Pearl's sixth novel, as it is during this period that a strict international agreement concerning copyright came into force.

The enactment of the Berne Convention is the death knell for a little-known group called "bookaneers" (a clever play on "buccaneer"), literary bounty hunters who earned their living by rounding up manuscripts and proofs from one country and publishing them in others, thereby depriving the authors of income from the sale of these bootleg or pirated editions.

There is a pecking order among this group. At the bottom are the barnacles (continuing the pirate/naval theme), in the middle are the journeymen like Whiskey Bill (who appeared previously in The Last Dickens), and at the top are the elite pirates, a rarified group that includes Pen Davenport and a man who calls himself Belial after the fallen angel from the Bible. With their professions and their reputations in jeopardy, the rival bookaneers head to Samoa—a place where simple deception is punished by being cast adrift in a canoe—on one last exploit. Rumors (bookaneers have minions everywhere who pass along valuable information) tell them that Stevenson is working on his Magnum Opus. The two men are determined to steal the manuscript and take it to America for publication, a coup that will guarantee the winner the honor of being the last and preeminent bookaneer.

The novel is told by Edgar Fergins, who recounts events to a black train porter named Clover who shares Fergins' passion for books. Fergins is in New York, acting as an expert witness in a trial that has drawn much attention. Fergins doles out his tale a bit at a time over several days. Sometimes he is loquacious, at other times he seems reluctant to continue.

Fergins started his career as a bookseller, with a stand on the streets of London where he learned to love and appreciate books as objects as well as for their content. His expertise and discretion earned him a modicum of respect among the bookaneers and it was always his goal to become part of their inner circle. He makes the most of the opportunity when he is press-ganged into accompany his mentor, Davenport, to Samoa. 

They know that Stevenson will be suspicious of anyone who seems too eager to ingratiate themselves to him, so they bide their time and sow seeds that will entice the writer to come to them. Davenport pretends to be writing a travelogue about Samoa, a subject dear to Stevenson's heart. Soon they find themselves regular visitors at his compound, Vailima, where the locals call him Tusitala, which in Samoan means "teller of tales." Pearl introduces readers to the great writer, his family, and his entourage, which includes a fiercely loyal Chinese man and a beautiful, young (and, generally, semi-naked) chief's daughter who is attended to by a Samoan dwarf who is one of those chosen to memorize parts of the island's history. 

 Fergins and his boss are constantly on the lookout for the crafty and devious Belial to make an appearance, while Stevenson takes his time about finishing a novel called The Shovels of Newton French. When the rival bookaneer shows up pretending to be a missionary, the game is afoot as the two men vie for increased access to the writer, who announces he is close to completing the book.

The Last Bookaneer has the feel of one of Stevenson's maritime novels. The trek to Samoa aboard a tramp steamer is long and uncomfortable, and life on the tropical island is difficult. The natives are restless, and the presence of German gunships in the harbor make the possibility of Civil War ever-present. Cannibals lurk in the jungles, escaped slaves from neighboring islands, and the heat and humidity—though apparently good for Stevenson's health—are generally draining.

The book does not have the pace of a thriller, but it is engrossing and gripping all the same. There are flashbacks to some of the bookaneers' past exploits, and a fascinating subplot that involves a love affair and the quest for the novella that Mary Shelley wrote as a first effort at Frankenstein. There are twists and turns and some surprising revelations at the end that would be at home in a murder mystery. It is a book that is passionate about books, publishing, literature and intellectual property. People who love books and reading will find themselves at home within its pages.

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