Like Bees to Honey

Caroline Smailes. Like Bees to Honey. Harper Collins, 2010. ISBN: 9780007357130

Yes, I know. I said Pacific islands. But since I was headed for two weeks on a couple of Mediterranean islands I thought I would bend the rules for a short while and read something set in Malta.

I wondered before I began what underlying universal truths I might glean. What are the commonalities of islands regardless of the body of water that embraces them? I didn’t expect to find such startlingly similar stories.

Nina is Maltese. As a young woman she convinced her family to let her travel to the United Kingdom to study. Within months she was in love with an Englishman. And pregnant. But not married. And her fiercely Catholic, fiercely proud father has disowned her, called her shameful, forbidden her to come home, and forbidden her family to come to her. She is cut off from her home, her family and her culture.

Malta had first crumbled under the sun, then under siege, bombardment, invasion and yet each time it grew stronger. The dust, the ashes, it all formed into labyrinths, secret passages that connect, divide, protect. The islanders have resilience, a determination, an acceptance of sorts. It is said that if you have been stripped to nothing, when you mend you alter, your aura changes, your purpose becomes clearer.

My mother once told me, “In-nies jigu Malta biex ifequ.”

  • people come to Malta to heal.

I left. I do not know what that means.

Nina’s son Christopher has been killed at the age of ten, run over by a car while crossing the road to greet her. But such is Nina’s grief, and guilt, she has lost the last remaining part of her Maltese identity, her faith. Lost, perhaps, her will to continue this life, with nothing left to sustain her.

I was naïve. My Lord does not punish people with an inability to make rice balls. My Lord punishes with the death of a child.

And so Jesus has sent Christopher back to her.

Now Nina and Christopher have come to Malta. Six years of grieving later, Nina must learn to heal, and learn to let Christopher go. In Malta, Nina’s dead mother welcomes them and cooks bragioli. Tilly the hares (“~ ghost, usually protector of a house but may become resentful”) is having trouble coming to terms with her own death, so soon after she had finally discovered happiness in her true self. Jesus is hanging out in Larry’s bar in Valletta, drinking beer to see if it is possible for him to get drunk. There are rumours that John Lennon is living in Malta. Dead people are everywhere because, Nina’s mother reminds her, all troubled souls come to Malta. Malta is where the good come to heal.

Triq Ir-Reppublika, Valletta, Malta

Triq Ir-Reppublika, Valletta, Malta

It is such a similar premise to that of Baby No Eyes– grief so insupportable that the grieved-for child returns to provide comfort, and is kept beyond that time – It’s hard not to continue to look for comparisons. Both stories look to the importance if identity in dealing with grief. Having a community, a tradition, and faith in who we are and how and where we belong, is something that sustains us. I wonder if this is something that is particularly strong in island cultures, or if it is indeed universal?

Malta has at some stage or other been overrun by pretty much everyone. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Vandals, Normans, Ottomans, French, British. They’ve all been and left their mark. And somehow these have all be absorbed and melded into a single, new, unique Maltese identity, language and culture. Malta a nation of survivors. Nina needs to be reminded, to be convinced, that she still wants to survive, and that there are things to survive for. Coming back to Malta and reclaiming her Maltese identity may give her the strength to continue to stand alone when she is far from home.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Baby No Eyes

Patricia Grace. Baby No Eyes. Penguin Books, 1998. ISBN: 9781742288147

I hadn’t come across the term ‘bioprospecting’ until I read Baby No Eyes. Also referred to by its critics as ‘biopiracy’, bioprospecting is the search for new pharmaceutical products through traditional remedies, often making use of (or, to the critical, exploiting) indigenous knowledge. The term is rarely used in Baby No Eyes, but its concepts of the protection, ownership, sharing and ultimate significance of a people’s knowledge, run throughout the book.

When Te Paania gives birth to her son Tawera, she wants him to know he is not an only child.

‘I knew there was someone,’ I said.

‘You have a sister four years and five days older than you.’

‘Now I see her,’ I said, ‘Shot. Two holes in her head.’

‘You mean she has no eyes,’ my mother said. ‘You mean her eyes were stolen.’

In her note at the beginning of the book, author Patricia Grace explains that her story is based on actual events in 1991. I haven’t been able to find any online details of that 1991 event, so I don’t know at what point Grace’s story becomes her own and not this other one. That any part of it could be true is deeply shocking.

Te Wakarewarewa Cemetery, Rotorua

Te Wakarewarewa Cemetery, Rotorua

Te Paania’s first child died, unborn, in a car accident. The accident also killed Baby’s father Shane, and almost took Te Paania with them. While Te Paania is in hospital and Shane’s grandmother Gran Kura and her family are making funeral arrangements, someone at the hospital has stolen Baby’s eyes.

We don’t know for certain why this awful thing has been done. Te Paania’s lawyer and activist friend Mahaki links the act with bioprospecting and the Gene Kings, exploiting indigenous knowledge and genetics without consent, dispossessing a dispossessed people all over again.

The unspeakable thing done to Baby is one in a long line of affronts to this Maori community. Another is the taking of their land and their sacred sites, added to which is the insult from the local Council which offers to sell their land back to them. This event galvanises the community, who mount a protest by occupying a city park, pointing out that this also had been their land, never willingly ceded.

In the course of their meetings developing, debating, agreeing on strategy, the old people tell the stories of the land and its history, and the young people want to know more:

The old man had gone on to talk about the rest of the land too, on and on, until there was an eruption from the younger people. The hard core began talking about laying claim to all Council property, so called, as they watched the old man’s cupped hard pointing in every direction. ‘This family there to there. This family there to there. Crops there to there. Homes there to there. Bones moved there to there…’

But at last they’d come back to arrangements for occupying the park in order to make known their demand for the return of Anapuke. ‘Anapuke first,’ they’d said. ‘Then once we’re set up on the park we want the grandmothers and grandfathers to tell us the rest.’ It was talk they wanted. Information. Other action could wait until later.

And so the community begins to renew itself, to share its knowledge amongst its members.

In the middle of this renewal, Gran Kura is waiting to go home to die, and she is trying to convince Tawera to let Baby go with her. Because Baby has been sent back to look after her mother in her grief. “’I was only on loan because Mum needed me,’” Baby tells Tawera “’but it was meant to be just for a few years. Then you came.’” As Te Paania told him at his birth, Tawera is not an only child, and he has never been alone.

It is hard not to compare Te Paania and her people with the Hekes and their community in Once Were Warriors. Te Paania and her family are educated in the pakeha way, but they are also connected to their culture and their land. While they still suffer discrimination and deficit – the treatment of Baby being the most horrific example – they are increasingly equipped to fight for themselves and their community. The Heke family, without a western education to speak of, and a generation removed from their cultural inheritance, have no such resources and very little hope.

Baby No Eyes is, for me, about learning to stand alone. That is easier to do when you know who you are, and you know that you have family, a community to stand with you and to fall back on. Tawera has spent his life being the eyes for his unseen sister, but eventually must be his own person. Te Paania and Mahaki and the people of Anapuka must find ways to keep their community strong, to pass on their knowledge, and to gain respect through self-respect. They are all linked and made stronger by knowledge and self-knowledge, and these are things that won’t be taken away easily.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, New Zealand | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Tuvalu

Andrew O’Connor. Tuvalu. Allen & Unwin, 2006. ISBN: 9781741148718.

When you search Amazon’s Kindle store for the word ‘Tuvalu’ you get nine results. Most of them are travel guides. One, called The Best Ever Book of Tuvaluan Jokes, apparently substitutes Tuvalu for every other disparaged group used in an off-colour joke. Now you are able to tell your racist joke about Tuvaluans instead of Jews, and so, claims author Mark Young, those jokes are suddenly funny again. Awesome.

The first on that list of nine is Andrew O’Connor’s Tuvalu.

‘Everyone has a place like that. A dream land or life they’re working towards, however vaguely.’

‘Why?’

‘Because without it we realise we’re obliged to die wanting.’

‘You don’t think you’re being just a tad melodramatic?’

‘Am I? Some people probably have more than one Tuvalu in a life. It changes as they grow. Or maybe they get to the first and find it’s nothing like they imagined and need a new one. You must have had at least one?’

In response to Tilley’s challenge, Noah can only come up with Tokyo. And it’s a pretty lame response, because he is already in Tokyo, and the life he’s living is hardly a dream. He’s eking out a living teaching English to listless Japanese youths, living in Nakamura-san’s cockroach infested, cat surrounded hostel. He’s starting to suspect that he won’t be seeing the large amount of money he loaned to fellow hosted-dweller Harry any time soon. He is without direction or ambition, without a Tuvalu.

Fellow English teacher Tilley is Noah’s girlfriend, but somehow he’s also got himself entangled with the unfathomable heiress Mami Kaketa. They each for a time seem to be his only points of reference, although each pulls him on a different track. When they both disappear from his life, Noah seems to slowly disintegrate, like his parents’ marriage, like the hostel around him.

Tilley’s Tuvalu isn’t real. She’s never going to get there. Tilley’s Tuvalu is only possible while she knows relatively little about the actual Tuvalu. While Tilley insists that her Tuvalu is not merely a dream, neither is it a tangible place where real life happens:

‘I’ve never been anywhere near it. I’ve never even studied it. For all I know is might well have sunk. But that one word’s taken on a meaning all of its own.

…There is no perfect place to live. …And knowing that, in order to keep Tuvalu I have to keep away from it. Anyway, if I really believed I was going there, going to find a Tuvalu, I’d never live. I’d live only in waiting.’

Information abhors a vacuum, and if you leave people without any good solid data about a subject they’ll make it up for themselves. Perhaps that is what has happened to Tuvalu. With seemingly no written fiction of its own to give to the world, the rest of us make up our own stories about Tuvalu. If we were left with only The Best Ever Book of Tuvaluan Jokes it would be a sad thing indeed. But luckily we have O’Connor’s Vogel’s award winning novel. This Tuvalu doesn’t try to give us a picture of what the real Tuvalu is like, but lets us come up with our own version, and our Tuvalus can be whatever we want or need them to be. One day soon I hope there will be Tuvaluan writers to tell us what their Tuvalu is.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Tuvalu | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Islands of the Frigate Bird

Daryl Tarte. Islands of the Frigate Bird. Institute of Pacific Studies, 1999. 9820201470

I don’t recall ever having heard before of the island of Banaba. Everyone should. It is the history of the world, and it’s future, demonstrated in one small rocky atoll.

Right from the beginning, its story is one of one group of people conquering another. When Rotan and his companions land on a rocky island after months adrift at sea, they call it the most obvious name possible, Banaba, meaning ‘rocky island’, and they soon murder the men among the short, dark-skinned people they find there, and establish a new life with the women and children.

So begins the life and culture of the Banaban people. It is one spent in balance with the earth and the sea. We follow the history of Banaba through the first person voices of many people, Islanders and others, from Rotan in ancient times to Ion Itabirik, a voice from the future.

It’s an engaging way of giving us a detailed history lesson. Through these first person accounts we can understand something of the culture and development of Banaba and its intersections with its neighbours, including Hawaii, Nauru, Kiribati and Tuvalu (the Gilbert and Ellice Islands), the Marshall Islands, and of course, the i-Matang.

We trace Rotan’s founding of a settlement, and the hardships of living on the atoll of Banaba, later known as Ocean Island. The people carefully steward the resources of food and water. We learn how fresh water was found and is husbanded. The stories of infanticide, to keep populations at a sustainable level, are both confronting and, in the context perhaps understandable. We stand beside Tiata Tewai on the beach after he has performed the requisite feat of endurance so that his “father and all the elders greeted me as a man, and I felt like a man, though I was only 12.”

On Tarawa, the main island of present day Kiribati, Australian Charlie Carrol decides to set up a trade store to buy coconut oil from the locals, the ingredient newly precious for soap and candle making. He works respectfully with elder Kabure, but Kabure’s son, now the grown man Tiata Tewai, does not trust white men. They each, though, confront the advent of the missionaries in their own ways but with similar fears.

Blackbirding takes men like Ten Ten away to Hawaii, but it is the discovery of phosphate and the advent of the Pacific Island Company that truly changes the fate of Banaba. While maintaining an ever smiling face of friendship and paternalism, the British, Australians and New Zealanders slowly mine the island of Banaba out from under the feet of its people. As the miners come to clear almost the last of their productive land, Sito and the other i-Banabans watch on:

Many of the trees had been planted years before by our ancestors. They were part of our heritage. They had life in them and they gave us life. I watched a machine root up an old mango tree and remembered how I had played in its branches as a young boy…

I saw Talu, my wife, hugging her favourite pawpaw tree as one would a dear relative. I felt her pain… The look on her face made my heart want to burst. It was that of a strong and proud person who had been completely defeated.

World wars and occupiers come and go. Borders are drawn arbitrarily around and between island groups by people far away, oblivious to or uncaring of the identity and wishes of the locals. So, the Banabans become i-Kiribati, even though they have never identified themselves as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony. They wonder why they can’t have an independent existence like their neighbours in Nauru. It hardly seems to matter, though, because Banaba has been rendered uninhabitable by mining, and their monumental fight for compensation through the British courts has been lost. The people have been resettled on other islands, although a few have returned after mining ceased in 1979.

Now the people of the Pacific’s atoll nations are facing the new threat of climate change. Islands of the Frigate Bird recounts Ronti Tekai’s address to the United Nations General Assembly pleading for the future of Kiribati and the other Pacific island atolls. I’ve not been able to determine how much author Daryl Tarte has fictionalised his telling, but there is no shortage of accounts of Kiribati pleading this case. The nation has, sadly, become the poster child of climate change impact.

Tarte is evidently not confident of a solution. In his fictionalised version, Ion Itabirik tells us from the year 2234 that

Out in the Pacific Ocean, the waves washed over the reefs that were once the habitat of man and insect, birds and beast. Only such high islands as Banaba and Nauru remained above the ocean surface but devoid of humans. They had become the roosting places of frigate birds that no longer had small islands and atolls on which to nest and have their young. These enormous migrations of birds scavaged far and wide across the vast Pacific and returned to Banaba and Nauru to lay their eggs and to leave their droppings among the crags and crevices like other birds had done for millions of years.

And so the cycle repeats, as it seems to again and again.

Posted in Kiribati, Nauru | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Telesa – Covenant Keeper

Lani Wendt-Young. Telesa – Covenant Keeper. CreateSpace Publishing, 2012. ISBN 9781466253711.

Lani Wendt-Young, niece of Albert Wendt, is doing something of what I hoped to find when I set out on this journey – producing modern writing with a Pacific sensibility. She’s also been credited with getting young Pacific Islanders interested in reading, which I guess makes her the JK Rowling of the Pacific.

Here is where I get to proclaim/confess that I’ve not read a single Harry Potter book, so I’m not able to make detailed comparisons. Except, perhaps, to say that both authors have lured young readers in by creating an exciting realist-fantasy world, where incredible things can happen on the school oval. Both Harry Potter and Telesa’s Leila and Daniel live in a world that is somewhat familiar to their readers. If you squint a bit you can almost see yourself there.

The familiar, real world in Telesa is a high school in Samoa. The fact that the setting is Samoa is both incidental and essential to the story. Incidental, because Telesa is a fantasy romance novel for young adults, where an ordinary young woman discovers that she has extraordinary powers. She must learn to harness and control them, while also learning more about herself and why she has this gift, or perhaps curse. Could happen anywhere.

But this is absolutely, essentially a Samoan story. Drawing on Samoan legend, rooted in Samoan culture, fixed in the Samoan landscape. While this story could happen anywhere, it is happening here.

Leila’s beloved father has recently died, and Leila has defied her grandmother to leave Washington for Apia to learn more of the Samoan mother she never knew. She has come to stay with Aunty Matile and Uncle Tuala, who insist that, even though Leila has finished high school, Matile and Tuala insist that while she is in Samoa she attend school. She is to go nowhere but school, home and church.

Even in this confined world, for Leila, and us along with her, there is plenty to learn about life in modern Samoa. To begin with there is Simone, Samoa College’s glamorous fa’afafine and Leila’s first friend:

I studied Simone out of the corner of my eye as he preened next to me. Almost as tall as me, skinny, beautiful liquid black eyes (was that a hint of forbidden eye liner?), glossy hair combed in an Elvis style bouffant and carrying a shiny red handbag on one perfectly bent arm. (Don’t ask me how he fit any text books in that tiny thing.) Noticing my scrutiny, he stopped mid-wave to look me up and down, one hand on his hip, Kate Moss style.

Wendt-Young is able to subtly introduce us to so many small but important aspects of Samoan life without ever giving the impression of lecturing. We get glimpses of Samoan households and home life, cooking, important crafts such as fine mat making, obsessions with netball and rugby, the beautiful singing of a Samoan church congregation, and the tensions between Christianity and traditional beliefs. We even get a glimpse of the fia fia night at Aggie Grey’s for good measure (although interestingly, no mention of the fire show at the end).

Fia fia night at Aggie Grey's

Fia fia night at Aggie Grey’s

Of course, the most exciting thing in Apia and at Samoa College is head boy and football star Daniel. Leila is drawn to this young man “all golden red in the sunlight, all heat, muscle and warmth. Always ready with that crooked smile”. But, as she learns more about the mother who has been hidden from her, and about the strength of her connection with the earth of Samoa, it becomes clear that Leila must push Daniel away.

As, it seems, for so many stories I’ve come across through Raintree Café, much of Telesa is about identity, fitting in, working out where you belong. Leila has been an outsider in Washington: “Too brown to be white but too white to be brown.” But in Apia Leila is amongst friends:

I was exulting in this new sensation. Is this what belonging felt like? Is this how it felt to fit in somewhere? I wasn’t sure. I had never been just one of the crowd. No different from my peers.

Wendt-Young also belongs in Samoa.* It is clear in every part of Telesa that this is a treasured home, and one that she wants to share. She written a story that both goes beyond a single place and yet is deeply part of one. It’s a story that’s not really about Samoa, and yet is really about nothing else.

 

* I previously said in this post that Lani Wendt-Young now lives in Australia. This was incorrect, as Lani has pointed out in her comment on this post. My sincere apologies for the error.

 

 

Posted in Action/Adventure, Contemporary Fiction, Romance, Samoa, Speculative Fiction, Women Writers, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Short Stories from Small Islands

Alan Dean Foster (editor). Short Stories from Small Islands: Tales Shared in Palau. Secretariat of the Pacific Community, 2005. ISBN: 9820000998

I’ve observed through friends and colleagues the painstaking preparations that go into hosting a Pacific Arts Festival, and the enormous pride in participating in one. Like the Olympics, they are held every four years, and they seem from a distance to be Olympian in scale.

The 9th festival, held in 2004, has left a lasting mark on its host country, Palau, at least to the casual visitor. When I was last in Palau (I think it must have been around 2009) there was still a gallery at the Belau National Museum dedicated artworks associated with the Festival, and I think the museum building itself was constructed in time for the 2004 celebrations. A 2010 review of the legacy of various Festivals of Pacific Arts (FOPAs) (careful, it’s 192 pages) noted particularly the benefits the festival had engendered for Palau, including a revitalisation of sailing and navigation courses and “youth interest in traditional skills of weaving, carving, tattooing, traditional food-making, traditional healing and boat-building.”

On a much smaller but no less important scale, it left us Short Stories from Small Islands. In his introduction to the book, editor Alan Dean Foster explains that these stories are the product of a creative writing seminar held during the 2004 FOPA. For most of the authors this is their first publication.

The theme of the 2004 FOPA was Otlobed A Malt – to nurture, regenerate, celebrate. A writing workshop is a wonderful way to nurture talent, regenerate stories and celebrate cultures, and Foster says that he was impressed enough with the quality of the work that came out of the seminar to bring a collection of offerings together for publication.

Many of the authors seem to have been very much influenced by the context in which they were writing – an arts festival aimed at preserving and sharing Pacific cultures. The author biographies at the back of the book suggest that two contributors are Palauan locals, four have come from elsewhere to live and work, and another is a visitor from Vanuatu. Most of their stories are conscious of their Pacific context, and eager to say something about Pacific cultures.

While, like Foster, I found something to like in all of the stories, some were a little earnest, others a little too lecturing in my view. One particularly short vignette, “Revealing Experience” by Carla Polloi, was a bit of fun and, I thought, did interesting things in saying something about Pacific cultural norms while just telling an amusing story. “Tropicbird Feathers”, by Tova Harel Bornovski, was the pick of the bunch, with a strong voice and an intriguing story of tradition, ritual and magic that had me wanting to follow on with whatever might happen next:

Night was falling fast. Sky was turning shades of purple that grew darker and darker. The old lady was taking the orchids out of her hair. She started to pull the feathers out. The long white feathers did not get the yellow turmeric stains. They remained white and bright as they were. Nana held the feathers with a wondering look on her face. She called the other ladies in. They were silent. They felt the magic.

Palauan carvings and storyboards

Palauan carvings and storyboards

Apart from presenting some good new writing, Short Stories From Small Islands is a beautiful object in itself. The cover image shows a Palauan storyboard, this glorious one by Ling Inabo. Each story is illustrated with a lovely image by an artist named Jipe Le Bars. The endpapers are what appears to be a wonderful handmade paper with whole leaves and stems pressed into it. I’ll be sorry to have to return it to the library.

Economic rationalists might say that festivals are a waste of time and money in an underprivileged region where there are so many priorities competing for funding. How can you fund an arts festival when so few of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals are being met? I’m not going to mount a defence or otherwise of the economic benefits of FOPA. But culture and its survival underpin all of our aspirations. It’s not an either-or prospect. And without the Festival and Short Stories From Small Islands, I would not have been able to find any fiction at all from Palau. Otlobed A Malt indeed.

Posted in Palau, Short Stories, Vanuatu | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Port Vila Blues

Garry Disher. Port Vila Blues. Allen & Unwin, 1995. ISBN 1864480254

Port Vila is my favourite town in the Pacific. If anyone is looking for a pacific island holiday I always recommend Vanuatu over the other places I’ve been (and that includes a lot of the major touristed ones). If you are after the lie by the pool resort holiday, Vanuatu has resorts to match Fiji and New Caledonia. It has some of the best food in the Pacific, in part due to the lingering French influence, bolstered by the fantastic seafood you usually expect in the islands, plus the mouth-watering addition of locally grown Vanuatu beef and good Tanna coffee. There is plenty of island adventure possible in the form of waterfalls, cultural visits, diving and snorkelling, even an active volcano on the southern island of Tanna and one of the world’s best dive sites further north off Espiritu Santo. And the ni-Vanuatu people, like people all over the Pacific, are warm and welcoming.

On top of all of that, Port Vila is a nice town to wander around in. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t truly say that of many of the major towns I’ve visited in the Pacific. They all have their charms and their interesting features, but Port Vila has a waterfront area you can easily access, fabulous fresh food and handicraft markets, a marina full of yachts in the middle of town, some not bad shopping, a great little museum and cultural centre, and on a lazy afternoon you can watch the locals play boules in the middle of it all. At night you can visit any of the fabulous restaurants, go to a nightclub if that is your thing, or visit the night market without feeling unsafe. Sorry to my Solomon Islander, Samoan, Palauan and Fijian friends, Port Vila wins.

Have I convinced you? Strangely enough, it appears that very few fiction writers have been convinced of the possibilities of Vanuatu, at least not ones who write in English. Despite the long period of colonialism (Vanuatu became independent in 1980), the sordid history of blackbirding, the huge number of Americans throughout the islands during World War II, and the steady stream of Australian tourists and tax dodgers, all of them forming, one expects, links between Vanuatu and the western world, almost no one has seen fit to set a novel in this wonderful place.

Chief's Nakamal, Port Vila

Chief’s Nakamal, Port Vila

Crime is not my favourite genre of fiction. In looking for a genre to read my way into Port Vila, crime wouldn’t normally be my first choice. But Port Vila Blues is set in the modern Vila that I knowa little, rather than the historical depictions in the other couple of books I’ve found (interestingly, all three by Australian writers).

The plot line of Garry Disher’s Port Vila Blues could be a allegory of Australians’ relationships with Vanuatu. A corrupt Australian magistrate uses his aid-funded role as a circuit judge in the islands to launder money and other stolen goods in Vanuatu’s tax haven. His network draws on the thriving tourist trade – regular plane loads of Australian and other tourists touching down to spend a brief time in tropical paradise. In his lovely home in the hills above the marina at Port Vila he believes himself more or less untouchable, above the law, able to manipulate and use those around him as he sees fit. That includes everyone from local politicians to his ni-Van housekeeper Grace. But the ni-Vanuatu aren’t helpless creatures without agency of their own, and they know what is in their interests and what is not.

While Judge De Lisle’s set-up in Vanuatu is key to the plot, it’s not the centre of the action. Instead, we follow career criminal Wyatt, mostly back in Australia, as he tries to find out why someone wants him dead over a stolen Tiffany brooch, and what might be in it for him. While there’s a bit of obligatory sex and violence, the main focus is Wyatt’s always-on suspicion and readiness, his careful preparation for every possibility. For a guns and murder crime novel Port Vila Blues actually felt quiet and thoughtful for much of the time. The blustering of the dumbly violent Baker, who stumbles blindly into the middle of a crime much more sophisticated than anything he has in mind, is an interesting counterpoint.

Disher’s writing is purposeful and workmanlike. There’s little waxing lyrical about ocean vistas and tropical sunsets here. Rooms and landscapes are noted in careful detail, but it’s all in the context of Wyatt’s wary sizing up of his surroundings, making sure he has at least two escape routes planned. It’s a well-paced page turner and an easy enough way to spend a couple of lazy reading afternoons. And it gave me an excuse to try to sell Vanuatu to you. Perhaps I’ll just have a peek at the current airfares myself…

Posted in Crime and Suspense, Vanuatu | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment