Bookshots: 'The Poisoned Island' by Lloyd Shepherd
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
The Poisoned Island
Who wrote it?
British writer Lloyd Shepherd, author of The English Monster.
Plot in a box:
In the late 1700s, a British sailor does something terrible to a princess on the faraway island of Otaheite (Tahiti). Now it's 1812, and sailors return from a newer trip to the island with a couple of secret stowaways: a half-breed missionary on a hunt to find his real dad, and a special tea that just may be killing anyone who drinks it. When murders begin to pile up, a River Constable risks everything—including the woman he loves—to solve the crimes.
Part history (half the characters are based on real people), part fiction, it's a well-mannered romp through time and addiction.
Invent a new title for this book:
Evil Tea and the Sailors who Loved It
Read this if you liked:
Any brand of historical fiction. The mash-up of the real with the imagined in this story is quite potent...just like the tea.
Meet the book's lead(s):
This is a hard one. There are so many to choose from! Island is something of an ensemble piece, and many of the characters carry a similar importance to the plot. So I'll go ahead and choose Charles Horton, a Constable of the River Police, who are a group of men trained to watch the Thames as ships come in and out. A gentle giant is Horton, and a smart one, introducing newfangled concepts like "motive" and "evidence" into the investigation of a seeming serial killer.
Said lead(s) would be played in a movie by:
I hate myself for this, but I sort of see Russell Crowe in this role. Mainly because I still see him as Javier in Les Miserables.
Setting: Would you want to live there?
London of the early 1800s was filthy. It was crude. And it was dangerous.
I'd like to visit.
What was your favorite sentence?
He sometimes feels vaguely and irritatingly angered by Horton's ability to ask the single question which exposes all the hiding places in which information might be concealed.
(Mainly because there's a certain someone who always does this to me...and it drives me insane.)
The Poisoned Island is immersive and addictive. The world is so vivid and well-built, it is hard to put down. And since the story is a murder-mystery, with layers of history and fact woven together with a healthy dose of magical realism, there's suspense, too, to keep you invested.
The writing is spectacular. The words drip with charm and grace. I loved letting the language carry me away, even in its crudest moments, with the roughest rabble-scrabble of 19th century London. There's no denying that this is a well-written book, with an engaging tale to tell.
But I take issue with The Poisoned Island on two levels. In the first place, there were so many characters, introduced in such close succession at the very beginning of the story, each with such similar names, I needed to write myself a cast list to keep them all straight. This is a minor complaint, to be sure, especially knowing the characters were often pulled from reality, but still. The beginning was quite confusing, what with Horton, Harriot, Hopkins, Banks and Brown all showing up in the first few pages. I felt like I'd taken a wrong turn into Dr. Seuss-ville for a moment or three.
My second issue is the bigger one, and it is this: women are almost entirely absent from the story, which would probably be less offensive if the few women included weren't flat, one-dimensional caricatures. There's the island princess, raped in the book's opening scene, who disappears and comes back as a devious spirit, the quintessential vengeful bitch archetype. There's Abigail Horton, held up on a pedestal by her husband as the very picture of perfection. And the thing is: she is perfect. Smart, gentle, content to keep herself company with her books while her husband spends days and nights away from home. She's a working man's wet dream, and she's so unrealistic it hurts. And then there's Mrs. Hopkins, the sea captain's wife, loyal and dutiful to the end, even when...well, I can't tell you that because it would be a spoiler. But none of the three women mentioned in the book were at all believable, so pigeon-holed were they. Even though London of old was apparently a man's world, women did exist, and I doubt they were all so...fake.
So while I did often enjoy this book, in the end I'm conflicted. Can I recommend a book that seems to devalue my entire gender? Am I being oversensitive? I'm not sure of the answer to either question, so I'll close it with one for you: what are your thoughts? Have you read the story, and if so, am I being unfair? I'd love to know what you think!
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