Review - THE MYSTERY OF THE VENUS ISLAND FETISH, Dido Butterworth (Tim Flannery)

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The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish
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Book Synopsis

Painted in white, red and black ochre, the heart-shaped mask was one of the greatest creations of primitive man. The size of a dining table, it was carved with crazed, spiky lines that told of its maker’s dangerous insanity. The nose, with its wide-open nostrils, sat above a great slash of a mouth filled with jagged, blackened, pig’s teeth. But these horrors were not what one first noticed. It was the eyes that drew you in. Bloodshot. Manic. Hypnotic. They had been fashioned from pearl shells smeared with red ochre, the irises blackened spirals made from cone shells. They pulled at Archie’s soul as powerfully as a vortex.

It’s 1932, and the Venus Island fetish, a ceremonial mask surrounded by thirty-two human skulls, now resides in the museum in Sydney. But young anthropologist Archie Meek, recently returned from an extended field trip to Venus Island, has noticed a strange discoloration of some of the skulls of the fetish. Has someone been tampering with the primitive artefact? Is there a link between the mysterious disappearance of Cecil Polkinghorne, curator of archaeology, and the fetish? And how did Eric Sopwith, retired mollusks expert, die in the museum’s storeroom?

Book Review

Stay with me here, this is going to get complicated. THE MYSTERY OF THE VENUS ISLAND FETISH is a satirical, comic crime novel set within the realms of Sydney Museum. Written, supposedly by museum curator of worms, Dido Butterworth, the first complication is that the story comes straight from the voice of Assistant Curator Archibald Meek (more on that coming). Introduced by well known environmentalist and Australian identify Professor Tim Flannery, the next complication is that he actually wrote the thing, Dido Butterworth being a fictional character as well.

To make matters even more confusing the "manuscript" is mysteriously rediscovered embedded in the preserved remains of a museum exhibit, emerging into the light when it drops into view via the animal's.... well let's go with lower orifice and you can work it out from there.

Buried within the arch and slightly rambling style, the nub of the story revolves around the Fetish of the title, and the connection that Meek builds with the islands of it's origin, when he heads off on a field trip there, from which he is somewhat (by years) delayed in his return. That return finds him a fish out of water as he has matured during his time on the island, and assimilated to Island life, culture and customs extremely well. So his return to Sydney is full of social and societal clangers - from clothes that no longer fit, to tanned skin, to utter befuddlement when his common island custom love token turns out to be profoundly unacceptable to "polite" Sydney society.

In the middle of all of this there's a story about the origins of the Fetish and the mysterious disappearance of a museum curator but some readers would be forgiven for a slightly desperate feeling in trying to hang onto that central premise. It's hard to read THE MYSTERY OF THE VENUS ISLAND FETISH and wonder if the mystery isn't more about Flannery's use of this vehicle to fire a few poorly disguised barbs at detractors, anti-sciencers and a hefty dose of people who have annoyed him. Which, had this used a different vehicle, seems to this reader to have been a perfectly reasonable undertaking and one which would engender much agreement and sympathy in many quarters. Unfortunately the heavy-handed artifice of THE MYSTERY OF THE VENUS ISLAND FETISH, and the potential of some of that message clash so badly it's hard to divine what the book's really trying to achieve.

Needless to say we're talking a particular style of humour which includes a range of eccentric references to body parts (the Venus Island Fetish is made up of skulls, and in particular, their teeth which you'll need to pay attention to). There's also a range of vaguely Dickensian joke names (Meek's love interest Beatrice Goodenough as an example).

If the underlying agenda doesn't interest you, this might be a book that reader's with a preference for that sort of jolly hockey sticks, slightly exaggerated absurdist humour. For this reader, despite a distinct liking for absurdist styling, it was too-heavy handed to be that convincing, satisfying or even vaguely amusing.

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