A review of Bright Planet by Peter Mews

This is a fast moving, enjoyable adventure tale which resolutely refuses to become too serious about its purpose. Instead it is a very visual, funny, historically rich, and occasionally silly trip through an Australia that may or may not have ever existed but is well drawn enough to create its own reality.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Bright Planet
By Peter Mews
Picador, $22
Paperback, ISBN: 0330364588

Peter Mews’ second novel, Bright Planet, is a fun filled and comic romp. Well researched and cleverly detailed, the novel follows the adventures of Botanist Quiet Giles, Captain Elijah Blood, the self-serving thief Edward Robins and a whole cast of Dickens-like characters as they map the interior of Australia on a ship called Bright Planet under the jurisdiction of the Royal Geographical Society in London. The novel is set in 1841, and moves over a year from its initial gathering of elite explorers at the St James Raleigh Club in London to a mythical Melbourne, ending up in the remote and unchartered parts of Australia’s inland. The timing is always clear to the reader, as the narration is broken up by Blood’s ship logs which keep track of the time, as well as the chapter headings which tell us exactly what day into the journey we’re at. The structure of the novel is unique, following the Fibonacci numbers (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, … Where you add the last two numbers to get the next). The result is that we begin with a tightly sequential story which moves at greater and greater intervals, like a nautilus shell, a pinecone spiral, or the rate that rabbits breed, which was the inspiration for Fibonacci’s experiments in 1202. Despite the elegance of this organisation, it is hard to say whether this structure aids, or hinders the novel. On the upside, it provide an interesting sensation to the reader which mirrors experience, that is, of time moving forward at an ever greater pace (eg, the older we get the faster time seems to move). It also has the effect of speeding up the action and moving the story along more quickly as time progresses. However on the downside, the increasing intervals of time doesn’t directly derive out of the storyline and is therefore a little unsettling to the reader, who has to make up the difference in this or her head, sometimes by going back and trying to re-clarify who each character is and why they might have died or disappeared in the intervals. It can be confusing, although the narration does compensate by providing information on the missing characters.

Bright Planet is definitely a novel driven by its setting, and this is where Mews excels. From the detailed descriptions of Bareheep (an early Melbourne) to the descriptions of inland Australia, the novel is infused with the sensual qualities of its period:

He stopped reading. He shook his head as is to clear it, and then took up his quill. The candles had burned low and the light was flickering, but the sounds had returned. Giles could hear the voices now, the songs that carried across th river to his cabin, the raucous clamour of Mollies in their rooms, an argument rising and falling, and the swift crack of a leg breaking on the waterfront. He could hear Elijah Blood coughing in his room, a keening impatient sound, and Giles thought the Captain must be drinking

`The characters themselves have been designed to be amusing, but sometimes Mews sacrifices depth for a very deliberate humour which at times seems gratuitous, such as Doctor Moribund’s flatulence: “Ohh! He moaned. ‘I just ate…Hic…fart.tHup…too much.” (186), Captain Elijah Blood’s continual vomiting, or the many sexual scenes with their acrobatics, yawning fannies, “gamahucheing,” or “piercing thrusts of his dart of love.” (136) It is hard to understand why Blood’s longings would make him so nauseated (vomiting isn’t generally a symptom of love), or why Giles would be so afraid of his wife Mary’s “clitorisme.“ The reader never learns why Giles is hooked on laudanum, why Edwin Robins absconds in the first place (and why the jewellery wasn‘t noticed missing), or even the origins of Giles and Bloods’ dream that sustains the journey well beyond the danger point or the dictates of their English sponsors. Despite the shallow characters the story if full of enjoyable word play, such as “Stately plump Septimus” Sploon’s shaving ritual, which (perhaps along with Doctor Moribund’s fart) is a nod to Joyce’s Ulysses. Other clever wordplays include the alliterative names, not only Septimus Sploon, but Jerker Jenkins and William Weed to take only a few examples. Although the two major characters, Blood and Giles are a little too unreal and lightly sketched to be taken seriously as heroes, especially in light of the pain which both characters are in, minor characters like the desperate Edward Robins or the dumb and dumber styled Cormac and Angel seem to be a better fit for this novel which steadfastly refuses to take itself too seriously. They further along we move into the novel, the more we realise that the characters aren’t really the point. It is the setting, the beautiful and squalid surroundings that the crew encounters which pre-dated the adventurers arrival, and certainly pre-date the predatory ambitions of the colonial interest in trip. This is perhaps the heart of the novel: that this beauty, a thing which exists solely for itself rather than to glorify the ambitions of mother England, will be there after the crew has gone (and most of the crew are gone by the time we get to the novel’s end):

The orange cliffs rose high on both sides, shading the river from the fierceness of the sun. A pleasant breeze cooled Mr Bonney’s cheeks, a moment of relief he had not expected. …the aeons had carved a majestic gorge out of the rock, a silent channel between one place and the next. It was a dangerous and lonely fall in the landscape. The geological strata were plainly visible in the walls of rock. Trees clung where they could, but for the most part of rock was bare, and the many ledges and overhands were like so many steps up to a giant’s lair. In which ancient place, amongst the boulders, the timekeepers knelt.”(243)

This is a fast moving, enjoyable adventure tale which resolutely refuses to become too serious about its purpose. Instead it is a very visual, funny, historically rich, and occasionally silly trip through an Australia that may or may not have ever existed but is well drawn enough to create its own reality. Bright Planet is rather more than a simple historical fiction – it is a fun, self-referential adventure tale full of bravado, swashbuckling, and the surprising joy of its own language.