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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Stevenson under the Palm Trees

Alberto Manguel

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To purchase Stevenson under the Palm Trees

Title: Stevenson under the Palm Trees
Author: Alberto Manguel
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 103 pages
Availability: Stevenson under the Palm Trees - US
Stevenson under the Palm Trees - UK
Stevenson under the Palm Trees - Canada
Stevenson under the Palm Trees - India
Stevenson sous les palmiers - France
Stevenson unter Palmen - Deutschland
Stevenson sotto le palme - Italia
Stevenson bajo las palmeras - España
  • With woodcuts by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Our Assessment:

B : decent idea for a literary tale, fairly well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 9/2/2004 Lavinia Greenlaw
FAZ . 30/62003 Wolfgang Schneider
The Guardian . 10/1/2004 Karl Miller
The Guardian . 12/2/2005 Sarah Adams
The Independent . 9/1/2004 Michael Arditti
Independent on Sunday . 11/1/2004 Murrough O'Brien
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 23/7/2003 Thomas Hermann
The Spectator . 31/1/2004 Jane Gardam
The Times A 10/1/2004 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 23/1/2004 Michael Kerrigan
The Village Voice . 12/10/2004 Rachel Aviv
The Washington Post . 5/12/2004 Sven Birkerts
Die Welt . 5/7/2003 Andreas Burkhard

  Review Consensus:

  Fairly impressed, though not all entirely won over

  From the Reviews:
  • "This contrived fiction works well as a novella, a form which can bring out the artifice in a writer to remarkable, or rococo, effect. Here, plain speech bumps up against formal debate and undigested biographical matter, while people act according to the information they have to convey. Syntactical oddities make the book read at times as if it were in translation, but this adds to the general air of mediation." - Lavinia Greenlaw, Daily Telegraph

  • "Ein leicht bekömmlicher Stevenson-Remix (.....) Es ist eine freundlich erzählte Geschichte, in der das Böse nicht in den Bann zieht, sondern Zitat bleibt. Halb Homestory, halb belletristische Hommage, ist das kleine, schön gestaltete Buch jedoch geeignet, dem Klassiker der englischen Literatur auch hierzulande mehr Aufmerksamkeit zu verschaffen." - Wolfgang Schneider, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This is a very lean book -- short enough to suggest that there could only be so much of the game it plays, in which a writer is bitten by his novel." - Karl Miller, The Guardian

  • "In this uncluttered novella illustrated by Stevenson's own woodcuts, I had the strange sensation of stumbling across an oasis in a desert of too many words. Reading felt as soothing as exhaling." - Sarah Adams, The Guardian

  • "Manguel mixes motifs from Stevenson's life and work into a delightful literary soufflé. While it is too easy, as several European critics have done, to heap excessive praise on a novella, this is a clever and charming jeu d'esprit." - Michael Arditti, The Independent

  • "Though this is richly told in faultless prose, it remains a little thin. Here's a novella which should have become a novel." - Murrough O'Brien, Independent on Sunday

  • "It would be wrong to reveal the end of Stevenson under the Palm Trees, for it is as well as a fable and imagined biography, also a thriller. Its success is its complete credibility. Manguel convinces us that Stevenson would believe every word of it, except perhaps about his shame for his lust." - Jane Gardam, The Spectator

  • "Almost perfectly executed, it’s an exquisite amuse bouche whose taste lingers on." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "Steeped in the words and rhythms of Stevenson's letters, and in the memorials written afterwards by visitors and friends, this is a story of the origins and implications of literary creation. Baker, a name made flesh here in the form of a Bible-punching missionary from RLS's native Edinburgh, represents a direct challenge to the writer's vocation and view of himself. (...) Alberto Manguel's touching little story shows us a writer so completely rooted, so utterly at home with his imaginative inheritance that there is no conceivable setting in which he could seem out of place. He has indeed succeeded in authoring his own world." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The book cleverly dramatizes the power struggle between father and son, but also between writer and reader: A passionate bookworm, Manguel responds to Stevenson by rewriting his most famous tale." - Rachel Aviv, The Village Voice

  • "(T)he mystery Manguel creates is not sufficiently fleshed out or psychologized. (...) Manguel's spare storybook style keeps us from deeper engagement with the plot but serves him well at the end, when the suggestions and implications are most densely woven. Then he can create a sonorous cadence in keeping with the dark intention of this little work" - Sven Birkerts, The Washington Post

  • "Manguel hält das in der Schwebe. Persönlichkeitsspaltung, Doppelgängertum, Albtraum -- die Nachtseiten der Natur sind bei Manguel erkennbar, aber selten zum Fürchten. Sie taugen nicht für diese 'metaphysische Kriminalgeschichte', die weder das Verbrechen noch den Täter je ganz in den Griff bekommt." - Andreas Burkhard, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Stevenson under the Palm Trees is barely even novella-length, but it still is a fairly substantial story. It centres on Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, still writing (or, more often, dictating) his stories, but in poor health.
       The story begins with him meeting a man on the beach, a Mr. Baker who works for the Edinburgh Missionary Society and is travelling the South Seas spreading the word and annoying the locals. Here and later, Baker remains a shadowy figure, someone who both always seems to be near-by, and yet also never entirely present. Unlike Stevenson, who (along with his family) has found his place among the locals, Baker is an irritating outsider who thinks he knows everything (especially for the locals) better. He's the sort of fellow who is willing to share a (good-sized) drink with Stevenson, but thinks alcohol is an evil the locals can't be trusted with.
       The crux of the story is the brutal rape-murder of Vaera, a fourteen year old girl that Stevenson had eyed shortly before her death. The murder goes unsolved, but at least one clue points in Stevenson's direction. And worse is yet to come.
       Stevenson under the Palm Trees is also a story about story-telling. Stevenson notes how the locals believe in how his stories are true, and the dead girl's father despairs of the local chief justice finding the murderer, explaining: "The chief justice knows no stories". And then there is that twenty-page story Stevenson pens himself in one arduous fit, an abomination his wife denounces, its subject-matter: "totally unsuitable for fiction", which he then burns .....
       Biography, mystery, and some local colour -- the tension on the island fairly well captured --, Stevenson under the Palm Trees is a subdued Stevensonesque tale with a decent literary twist to it. Manguel comes close to striking the right note in the writing, though the effort of integrating fact and bits of Stevenson's own writing does show. The Doppelgänger-play is a weighty burden (Jekyll and Hyde inevitably imposing themselves on the tale), and Stevenson's illness -- making for lots of haze and lost time -- perhaps too simple a device, but it's a decent little historical literary (semi-)thriller.

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Stevenson under the Palm Trees: Reviews: Robert Louis Stevenson: Alberto Manguel: Other books by Alberto Manguel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Translator and critic Alberto Manguel was born in Argentina in 1948.

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