Review: Lyall Watson’s “Gifts of Unknown Things: A True Story of Nature, Healing, and Initiation from Indonesia’s Dancing Island”

by writereaderly

Well. Biologist and paranormal seeker Lyall Watson is storm thrown and laps up on a name-changed Indonesian island in the early 70s. He bonds with the locals, is present to their magic and the world’s grandeur, and flees back to civilisation when it all gets too emotional — only to write another white man’s unprovable “I been there” autobiography. I appreciated that Dr Watson probably did observe and learn some things from the flora and fauna (human and otherwise) of the Dancing Island, but my credulity was stretched as each further “coincidence” and “magickal” event was recorded in this “memoir”. Do battles of good and evil really get played out between traditional, pubescent girls in white, and power-hungry New Men in black? While the narrator tries to convince you of the holographic nature of the universe and its relationship to Atlantis and poltergeists? In between recounting incredibly complex folklore that he supposedly understood (and had the right to retell) in Indonesian and/or “the old tongue”? I suspect not, but I also suspect that some real people watching is buried in the highly fictionalised tale. The scene with the glowing sea creatures was the highlight, which unfortunately opened the book: all downhill from there. Only for those really into Indonesia or dying culture magicks.

Where it came from: KS’s Bookshelf
Time and manner of reading: A few decreasingly absorbed and increasingly sceptical reads
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan by Carlos Castañeda, for that same mix of research swamped by breezy “factional” storytelling
Who I’d recommend it to: Hmm… those after some kulcha who happen to have a bag of salt handy
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Kalila and Dimna by Ramsey Woods