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Books: Christians in a pagan place

Charles Nicholl on the heirs of the `Bounty' mutineers
Serpent in Paradise by Dea Birkett, Picador, pounds 16.99

Though her destination was not notably dangerous, Dea Birkett's journey to Pitcairn Island strikes me as remarkably intrepid. Known to historians as the last resting-place of the Bounty mutineers, to philatelists as a much-prized postmark and to nostalgic imperialists as a last remnant of the British Empire, Pitcairn is a mere speck in the South Pacific, a mile long by a mile and a half wide. Its 18th-century discoverer, Captain Philip Carteret, described it as "scarce better than a large rock in the ocean".

It is 1,000 miles from the nearest large island, Tahiti, and more than 3,000 miles from New Zealand, whence it is nominally governed by a British High Commissioner who has never visited it. The 1991 census gave the population as 40; by the time Birkett arrived it was down to 38. The island's telephone system consists of one party line, its school has nine pupils, its fleet a pair of longboats named Tug and Tin.

Herein lies the intrepidity, in this mix of remoteness and claustrophobia. It is like being stuck in a small village several weeks' journey from anywhere. Add to this the ascetic rule-book of Seventh Day Adventism - drinking and smoking are illegal, dancing and cards frowned upon - and you have a destination more forbidding than the deepest jungle or the iciest pole.

This sort of assignment is Birkett's forte. Her book Jella described a journey on a cargo ship from Lagos to Liverpool. She is one of a tough new breed of woman writers, like the Antarctic traveller Sara Wheeler. She feigned a tenuous research project on the Pitcairn postal service, and packed a trunk with writing equipment, mosquito repellent, a copy of Return to Laughter by the anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen, a large tin of instant coffee, and "enough tampons to last until my menopause". After many false starts, she got passage on a Norwegian cargo ship plying out of Houston, Texas. Nearing Pitcairn the captain used a chart compiled in 1825 - the most recent available.

Arriving, she is immersed in the rough, awkward intimacy of this remote and inbred community. She is disappointed to find that the "home in paradise" she has dreamed of "resembles a second-hand electrical appliance shop". She is warmed, puzzled and sometimes seared by her hosts, Irma and Ben, and their son Dennis - who is asserting his independence by moving 50 yards up the street - and the large spider which lives in the "duncan", or privy.

Her story is told with candour and humour. She is spikily observant, but there is a deep background note of tenderness for these hardy people. She has some tough trips aboard the longboats, but the deeper dangers are personal - flickerings of sexual attraction, old feuds, loneliness. "There was a pattern to Pitcairn which I could not see, a rhythm which I could not hear, like a dog's whistle when I wasn't a dog." At times she almost buckles under the pressure and longs to say, "I'm off for the weekend. See you soon!" "But there was nowhere to go ... It was the same heavy air, the same tangled weed and trees, the same clawing mud on every corner of the island."

And behind it hovers the ghost-ship Bounty, a true but fantastic story in which "what had happened and what we wanted to have happened were from the very beginning confused". Little is known about the lives of the nine mutineers who settled on the uninhabited island in January 1790, with assorted Tahitians, under the leadership of Fletcher Christian. Most, including Christian, were killed by Tahitians in 1793, but one John Adams lived until 1829. Mystery surrounds his identity: there is no John Adams on the Bounty's muster-list. There are reasons to believe he was Able- Seaman Aleck Smith, but a more colourful theory suggests he was Christian.

Birkett visits Adams's grave, but later learns it was a fake. The original is in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, as is his blond pigtail, catalogued blandly, length 190mm, width 16mm: "The length and width of a garden worm." Most of today's Pitcairners are direct descendants of the mutineers. The surname Christian still flourishes, and confers power and status.

In the last pages Birkett writes that "We all hold a place within our hearts - a perfect place - which is in the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength ... My mistake was to go there." It was certainly not a mistake in terms of good copy. Whatever her regrets, she has written a charming and perceptive account of life in this curiously dour tropical paradise.