Palace of the Peacock contains most of the elements that Harris elaborates upon in his later works, and it establishes his rejection of the conventional European style of fiction writing, which follows a linear pattern of narration and in which all aspects of the story are finally brought together to a logical conclusion. The storyline in this novel is as follows: Donne, a white colonizer, is leading a multiracial crew into the forest in hopes of enlisting cheap labor for his ranch plantation. As they penetrate deeper into the interior, the members of the crew, and finally the captain himself, die off one after the other.
The novel is very rich in symbolism. Donne, the ruthless white master, stands for the exploitative European presence in the Caribbean, concerned with individual gain, and having no appreciation of the natives except in terms of the physical labor that can be extracted from them. The crew of the ship represent the major racial groups of postcolonial Guiana: indigenous, African, and Asian. The length of the journey, seven days, hints at an anti-Genesis, a destruction rather than creation of the New World. The journey itself is representative of a quest, an exploration of identity as well as territory.
The novel begins as a dream of Captain Donne’s twin brother, the narrator. In the dream, Donne has been murdered by Mariella, a Native American woman he had seduced, exploited, and abused. The murder is a symbolic reference to the spirit of defiance and bitterness of the natives against the colonialists. Significantly, Mariella is also the name of the territory of the mission the crew stop at during their expedition.
Mariella, who also appears as an old woman, is similar in her variety of states of being to the crew members who are already dead and are reliving their adventures through the narrator’s vision. Finally, the murdered captain, Donne, whose story is told by his twin brother, eventually merges with this narrator, completely eroding of the traditional definition of a protagonist as a separate literary character with a specific function in the story.
Although aspects of Palace of the Peacock are explained toward the end of the novel, no final resolution takes place. Instead, the narrative implies that all stories and histories are merely interpretations of a vision, a perception construed in a state of altered consciousness.