This is a South Sea Island book. In addition it is, categorically speaking, what is known as a "personal record" or a "human document." Having thus damned it one must hasten to award to it a very high degree of praise. As the unknown author points out, those who have given the South Seas their vogue in the literature of the day are essentially visiting journalists; nor does he except R. L. S. This book, on the contrary, is made up of a series of letters addressed to a friend, Mr. Bohan Lynch, which cover a period of some nine years during which time the author was supporting himself in the New Hebrides, and later in Papeete, as a trader, painter, government employee, doctor of sorts, and Jack of most trades.
A gentleman, an Oxford scholar, a literature, he was one of the men who could not stay at home, and who preferred the path of a rolling stone to the respectability of an English common-room. However what he sought was not glamour but peace of spirit, and in truth he appears to have found little enough of either. The scenery of the islands seems to have left him cold. Instead, with a vivid and stern realism he paints a picture of sweltering heat, disease, fever, and death in the midst of a polyglot community of picturesque but unattractive traders (and scoundrels), ignorant and unpleasant savages, and an anomalous horde of half-castes, to say nothing of his pet aversions, the Presbyterian missionaries and the "Orstrylyun" bagmen. There is more of Somerset Maugham than of R. L. S.
Nevertheless the value of the book lies less in its faithful portrayal of daily existence in the South Seas than in its plain spoken and sincere account of the mental and psychic struggles of its author in these isles of illusion. It is not easy to define the intangible something that led and kept him there. Cursed with an introspective and sensitive mind, and possessed of a goodly amount of fastidiousness, he ran a gamut of hope, disgust, and despair in which he found little relief and small comfort. His native wife proved a temporary and fallacious hope, and soon passed with other phases of his experience. And yet at the end comes a note of peace. As he gazes at the moonlit surf of Moumou he writes, "I think I am just beginning to know what happiness beauty can give."
It is a fine book and an honest one. It is a book to make one hesitate about the South Seas: first about going, and then about--not going.