Posted by: Sally Ingraham | September 17, 2009

OT: The Palace of the Peacock – Guyana

Palace of the Peacockby Wilson Harris

To my great relief, a few short minutes spent googling this book made me aware of the fact that I am not the only person to have read it with a feeling of almost complete incomprehension. To find out that my reaction (“what a load of rubbish”) is a typical one has made me step back, take a deep breath, and prepare to reconsider. Thank you Google.

The plot of the book is this: A doomed crew beats their way up-river through the jungle of Guyana.

The characters seem to be simultaneously alive and dead, as well as awake and dreaming, and as they battle up the river, one by one they die more permanently until the book climaxes in a particularly strange dream sequence. That’s about all I got out of it…

Harris is a nearly forgotten author who’s books are mostly out of print. This is due to the fact that the average person (like me…boo) finds him to be a challenging read. His style is quite distinctive, full (to bursting) with metaphors and simile. His sentence structure is…wordy, and full of rich, chewable words too, but for me maybe an excess of them.

I have never felt quite so lost, so unable to get a footing. I think now that my desire to find something concrete in this book closed my mind to the enjoyment of it. I needed to abandon myself to the flow of the language, but I kept fighting it. “What is going ON?!” I kept exclaiming. “I don’t GET this!” I tried too hard to understand, perhaps.

Harris’ characters spend the book letting go of their physical existence – perhaps that is how the book must be read too, by letting go of the security of comprehension and the need to “get” it in a physical (mental) sense. Something like that.

There were certainly passages that were so lovely (and strange) that I felt myself slipping, falling into the book, accepting it, but then my foolish brain recognized that feeling and I snapped out of it and went back to being irritated at how annoyingly obscure the thing was!

Oh well. An interesting reading experience. I am trying not to feel a little disappointed in myself, but I also am embracing the urge I feel to…conquer? No, that’s not it. I recognize the challenge laid down before me by Harris’ pen, and I want to try again. Not conquer, or even “get it” – simply experience more completely what Harris created, see if I can disappear in, turn off my own internal voice and just exist, witness. Yikes, scary thought!

Maybe I’ll wait until next year! Meanwhile, the best thing that has come from this is that after I finished The Palace of the Peacock I discovered that I was ready to pick up Proust again – and now I am finding his writing to be even better than before, almost a relief in it’s simplicity after floundering through Harris. I’m loving The Guermantes Way! 🙂


  1. I’ve never heard of this book before, but I found your review really interesting. It definitely sounds like a challenging read, and I know I’m likely to react the same way as you, but at the same time I’m intrigued!

    One thing I’ve noticed, like yourself, is that challenging books can be wonderful palate cleansers. Even if I know I didn’t get everything out of them that I could, I always feel a huge sense of accomplishment when I see them through to the end, and always feel like I can read anything after them. They make other difficult books seem a little less daunting.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Steph – I visited your blog for the first time earlier today (finally, after hearing so much about you through Claire and Frances and others), and it was so fabulous that I immediately added you to my Google Reader. 🙂

    A “palate cleanser” is exactly what this book was for me. Kudos (odd ones, admittedly) to Wilson Harris, I guess!

  3. I’m glad you like our site! I’ve also added you to my Google Reader, so I can keep up with your great posts.

  4. Wow, if Proust seems simple by comparison, Harris must really be jolt! I have to admit, I’m really, strongly intrigued by your review. My weakness for weird books is dying to try him out, and I’d never heard of him before! So thanks for the tip, even if I may be cursing you when I finally get around to reading him. 😉

  5. Timely post for BBAW! One of thing I love about the book blogosphere is discovering non-mainstream reads.

    I gather from this review that Palace of the Peacock is a dense, difficult book. But I find the premise intriguing! I like things that are lovely and strange. Plus, it sounds kind of Heart of Darkness-like, and that’s one of my favorites.

  6. Emily and EL Fay – The funny thing about this book is that it is tiny – only a little over 100 pages! I hope you both find time to read it, as I would be VERY interested in your response. It definitely has a little “Heart of Darkness” feel to it, but that book was far clearer to me. Good luck!

  7. What a strange reading experience! I’m glad, for your sake, that there are some beautiful passages and that it’s only 100 pages. I like the cover a lot and would pick it up and flip through it if I saw it in the book store. I still might, I’m pretty interested in seeing this book.

  8. […] 7. September The Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris – Guyana […]

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