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.
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.