From the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos comes a sweeping historical novel set amid the skyscrapers of 1890s Chicago and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.
In the waning years of the nineteenth century there was a hunger for tribal artifacts, spawning collecting voyages from museums and collectors around the globe. In 1897, one such collector, a Chicago insurance magnate, sponsors an expedition into the South Seas to commemorate the completion of his company's new skyscraper—the world's tallest building. The ship is to bring back an array of Melanesian weaponry and handicrafts, but also several natives related by blood.
Caught up in this scheme are two orphans—Owen Graves, an itinerant trader from Chicago's South Side who has recently proposed to the girl he must leave behind, and Argus Niu, a mission houseboy in the New Hebrides who longs to be reunited with his sister. At the cusp of the twentieth century, the expedition forces a collision course between the tribal and the civilized, between two young men plagued by their respective and haunting pasts.
An epic and ambitious story that brings to mind E.L. Doctorow, with echoes of Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, Bright and Distant Shores is a wondrous achievement by a writer known for creating compelling fiction from the fabric of history.
Smith's impressive third novel (after The Beautiful Miscellaneous) is an absorbing exploration of culture, tradition, and renewal through the high seas adventure of three very different men. In late 1890s Chicago, an insurance magnate contracts Owen Graves, a demolitions expert, for an expedition to secure artifacts and "a number of natives... for the purposes of exhibition and advertising." A stipulation in the contract states that the magnate's spoiled son, Jethro, will serve as the ship's naturalist, despite having no knowledge of the workings of the real world. On the journey, Jethro spoils the ship with autopsied animals and withdraws from the crew of ex-cons. But Owen, the captain, and the crew have vivid encounters with native Melanesian islanders, two of whom Argus Nui and his sister Malini are taken aboard. Argus's "scholar's English" and islander knowledge secures him employment as an assistant on deck, but once delivered to Chicago, he and his sister are made to perform a public parody of native life, making the divide between heritage and Western values very clear. Jethro becomes dangerously fixated on Malini, and Owen comes to her aid. Smith expertly combines well-drawn characters with a complex narrative that moves smoothly to the dawn of a new century.