Bright and Distant Shores fits well into the tradition of travel narratives, where cultures clash and moral ambiguity is the order of the day. Lives and fortunes are risked, the innocent come to knowledge, and everyone discovers more about themselves than they do about the 'other' they go looking for. Smith does a good job of building a compelling narrative while feeding our desire for the bizarre and fascinating.
I was impressed with how Smith keeps the language and setting to the period without being preachy or overly descriptive - a common problem with historical fiction. Historical people and events are sprinkled in while the characters live out the plot and further the story, so it works well and doesn't feel like a class lecture.
The best part of Bright and Distant Shores is the interplay between the different points of view - often striking in their differences, sometimes even more striking in their similarities. We see the events of the book through three main characters - Owen, the American orphan who needs this trip to make his fortune; Jethro, the over-educated heir of a self-made millionaire; and Argus, a Southeast Asian orphan who's been exposed to the culture of the West and can't go home again. We also get glimpses from many of the minor characters, such as the ship's captain, the insurance magnate, Owen's future wife, and Argus's sister, Malini.
When these lives and ambitions come crashing together, the results are, thankfully, less predictable than you would imagine. This kind of novel often comes out as derivative and formulaic, but Smith does a good job avoiding this problem, mostly by giving us depth in virtually every character we encounter. The wife who is too good for Owen is a feminist and a working girl. The "foreigner-native" (a person born in the US but who spends a great deal of time in foreign countries) is more respected by the all-white ship's crew than the Ivy League rich boy. The moral failings of all of them are on display - no noble savages or enlightened Westerners to be found once we scratch the surface. Most importantly, Owen and Argus carry almost equal weight in the plot and narrative - each has his story told in full, each is an active agent in what happens in his own life, and each of them pays the consequences for his own choices - not just the choices made for him.
The story is compelling, with plenty of surprises along the way. I would have liked to see more from the point of view of Adelaide and Malini, but the book is already 467 pages, and the focus on the three young men keeps the narrative from wandering too much. Bright and Distant Shores is the perfect novel for someone who likes a rich and suspenseful story that doesn't involve murder mysteries or private detectives.
This review is from the November 17, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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