The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish Review
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To some, museums may seem like stuffy, silent places, where super-serious scientists fawn over strange relics. But in author, professor, and former museum director Tim Flannery’s novel The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish, the back rooms of an Australian museum become steeped in mystery and intrigue.

The story takes place in 1932, as young anthropologist Archie Meek returns home to Sydney after spending five years living with a native tribe on the Venus Isles. During his extended visit, a lot has changed at the museum where Archie works. A number of curators have left under mysterious circumstances, and the Venus Island Fetish, an important ceremonial mask, seems to have been altered. Even worse, Archie’s beloved fiancée, Beatrice, suddenly wants nothing to do with him. So while he sets out to win Beatrice back, Archie also becomes determined to get to the bottom of the museum’s dark mysteries.

Framed as the recently-discovered writings of a mysterious curator, The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish gets off to a strange start. Flannery introduces the story by explaining its origins, yet this set-up seems entirely unnecessary, since the mysterious background doesn’t really play a part in the story—and it feels more like a poorly-executed gimmick than anything else.

What follows, however, is an amusing and eccentric novel about a bunch of quirky characters—curators, staff, and board members—as they deal with relationships, their studies, and the politics of running and maintaining a museum (especially, in this case, during an economic downturn). There are a whole lot of characters here—often too many to keep straight—and, for that reason, it’s not easy to get a real feel for any of them. But they certainly make for an entertaining cast of scientific misfits.

Flannery’s style, meanwhile, is chatty and meandering, a bit like the narration of a nature special by a slightly batty scientist. It spends quite a bit of its time inside Archie’s head—and, since Archie is still struggling to return to his old life in the big city after five years of living among natives, his thoughts tend to be muddled and confused. It’s rambling and a little bit stuffy—but that’s what gives it its unique style.

The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish definitely has its flaws. It’s an odd and unfocused story about a whole lot of odd characters—and its style sometimes makes it a challenging read. But if you enjoy museums and the unique artifacts (both living and not) that they hold, then you’ll be intrigued by Archie’s adventures.

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