Years ago while strolling through Powell’s Books I came across Dea Birkett’s 1997 book Serpent in Paradise: Among the People of the Bounty. Noticing the book was recommended by a member of the store’s staff, I proceeded to read the book’s description. Described on the book’s back cover as Birkett’s sojourn on the isolated isle of Pitcairn, (a miniscule British possession in the South Pacific populated by the descendents of the HMS Bounty), and being duly intrigued by what I read, I bought the book. And while I enjoyed learning about everyday life on Pitcairn Island as reported by a complete outsider, I absolutely HATED the narrator ! An otherwise promising book was marred by her smug attitude, sexual obsessions, and general inability to perform as an objective, (and therefore credible), journalist. Needless to say, Serpent in Paradise left me considerably disappointed.
Fast forward to early 2009 and one evening I happened to catch an interview on Fresh Air with Sydney-based journalist Kathy Marks. Her book, Lost Paradise, is the account of her and a handful of other journalists who were allowed to visit Pitcairn Island to cover a series of criminal trials stemming from accusations that Pitcairn’s male leadership had been sexually abusing and raping local teen girls for decades. As I listed to the author’s interview with host Terry Gross, I gradually remembered reading about the trial on the BBC homepage years earlier. At the interview’s conclusion I made a mental note to someday read the book but then quickly forgot about it.
Well, as luck would have it a few weeks ago I across a copy of Lost Paradise during one of my frequent library visits. After finishing the book last week or so I’m happy to report, despite the book’s disturbing subject matter, I liked Lost Paradise. And unlike Serpent in Paradise, I didn’t end up loathing the book’s author.
With just under 50 inhabitants, all purported to be devout, church going Seventh Day Adventists, dwelling on the remains of an extinct volcano almost half way between Australia and South America, for years Pitcairn Island was seen as modern-day Eden with its blend of unspoiled tropical beauty and Christian faith. But, according to Marks, as details of the decades long abuses and rapes began to surface this romanticized vision of Pitcairn Island began to erode. Not a single Pitcairn family was untouched from the sexual violence, with abused and abusers sharing the same families, thereby giving an incestual overtone to the nature of the crimes. Compounding all of this, as investigators learned that most of the most notorious and unrepentant perpetrators happened to be the Island’s ruling male elite, Pitcairn Island seemed more like Lord of the Flies and less like Fantasy Island.
While a few of the reviewers on Amazon didn’t like Kathy Marks’ writing I had no problem with it. I thought she did pretty good job chronicling a disturbing tale while making it readable. Kudos also to Marks for devoting much of the second half to Lost in Paradise to her analysis of why such terrible abuse happened in the first place why it went unchecked for so many years. The end product is a decent book about a human indecency.