Henderson’s Spear by Ronald Wright

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By Claire Zulkey

Dusty Mysteries and Questionable Choices

“We seem to be a family of writers,” filmmaker Olivia Wyvern writes, “The kind with secrets to dribble onto paper and hoard away. For whom, I wonder. For posterity? Or as a form of exorcism?” Olivia’s family, prolific as it is, is also one rife with dusty mysteries and questionable choices. In Henderson’s Spear, a novel by Ronald Wright, we follow her as she researches and reveals her family’s dark history for a future generation.

We meet Olivia in an extremely compromising position. She has just been told that the daughter whom she gave up for adoption 22 years ago is interested in contacting her. Olivia obliges, albeit from a Tahitian women’s prison, unjustly jailed for the mysterious murder of a young woman.

The story that Olivia gradually divulges is one intended to introduce herself to her daughter. However, this is no greeting card. With nothing to do in jail, Livs takes this opportunity to reveal her entire history to her daughter. As she writes about herself, she doubles back over and over again, retracing the lines of the Wyvern family history as well.

Why is Olivia in Tahiti? To discover the secret of her father, who disappeared during the Korean War. Why did her father disappear to the South Seas? To unearth the roots of his ancestor, one British naval officer named Frank Henderson, who travelled to the area a hundred years earlier.

Liv shares the narrative spotlight with Frank himself, whose letters she discovered after her mother’s death. The Hendersons and Wyverns create a family that attracts adventure and queer fate and Liv pieces it together for us with their combined writings: “The road from the past is washed out, and all one can do is rescue a few artifacts and echoes and bits of paper.”

Wright brings his story alive with beautiful facets and complex details of the travels his story takes, showing us the effort he took in researching this novel. Henderson leaves behind fascinating souvenirs such as a gigantic wooden spear from Tahiti, an engraved silver cigarette case bestowed upon him by none other than the heir to the English throne, and a tiger’s eye from his adventures. Wright’s magic and mystery make a lot of his details more believable than they would be in another setting. Lord Jim, for instance, Liv’s father’s parrot, lives for over 30 years, reproducing her father’s voice for Liv’s grieving mother. Henderson’s occasionally poetic descriptions of his locations, such as the sun rising in Fiji “from a puddle of mist, spreading a brassy light over the bay” add a hint of antique travelogue to the tale.

A problem with Wright’s book, however, is that he tends to get a bit too clever for his own good. Parallels run throughout the book that are extraneous and a bit unbelievable. In Henderson’s first journal entry, he writes too self-consciously, “A curious habit—to write to one’s future self.” The reader is willing to accept the coincidence that Henderson, Liv’s father Jon and Liv all had secrets left behind in the South Seas, but Wright seems to doubt our credulity and feeds us unnecessary hints and clues to prove his plot. Towards the end of the book, Wright, instead of cutting to the facts to which we feel entitled, still gives us additional parallels, such as Liv’s observations of an overgrown garden of a ruined Marquesan estate (obviously hinting at the overgrown garden of her family’s secrets.) This occurs so close to Liv’s discovery of the truth that while Wright’s efforts to show us these patterns do not go unnoticed, it is frustrating to endure when all we want is plot. The true story of Liv’s heritage, which she has traveled so far to find, is something of a letdown when we realize what an unbelievable setup we have had to endure to find out. The coincidence is almost too great to comprehend.

Some themes are visible but difficult to truly understand, such as the travels and writings of Melville, French-British-Canadian tensions, and fleeting flirtations with the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. In fact, in a sense, as a turn-of-the-century soldierman, Henderson is painted almost too good to believe, somewhat like Fletcher Christian, master’s mate on the Bounty, who is often portrayed as a hero despite questionable facts. Henderson’s rather politically correct observations and lukewarm attitudes and actions are almost disappointing for somebody who is supposed to be sailing the seven seas in the prime of his life. His rather PG-rated affair with a Tahitian beauty is also reminiscent of Christian’s unbelievable clean-cut portrayal of his own affairs with the natives.

Meanwhile, the author throws in a few too many red herrings to throw us off track. A bit of mystery is a good thing, but several plot twists and themes don’t get tied up, such as the dead woman who caused Liv to be thrown in prison, a didactic lesson about the wrongs of nuclear weapons, and Liv’s affair with a married man who harbors, of course, his own dark secrets.

These critiques, however, are as close as you can come to having too much of a good thing. Henderson’s Spear is a fascinating tale that teaches its readers small lessons about Polynesian life, the British royalty and the Korean war effortlessly without seeming overstuffed. Wright, who crafted the tale based on his own family history, places his story in a mysterious limbo somewhere between fact and fantasy. His tale, literally and figuratively travels back and forward across time and space so much that a map would have been a welcome addition. Liv, as thoroughly modern as a woman can be, speaks through ghosts in order to communicate with her specter of a daughter. “The dead don’t go away, they live inside us,” she says, as Wright makes the dead and dusty come alive for us.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hendersons spear/