Endings and Beginnings

When I started this blog I was primarily looking for a reading focus for the year. Something that would stop me from having that decision paralysis I often fall for, when there are too many choices and possibilities and I can’t decide and I end up reading nothing. I have the same trouble with travel destinations. Raintree Café has been a lovely way of combining the two. Remembering some of the places I have been and contemplating others I’ve not made it to.

In my introductory post I said that:

I am interested in the depiction of Pacific Island cultures, both by Pacific Islanders and others. I’m interested in that depiction in fiction, because fiction is the place where people are most likely to depict the world not as they think it is but as they think it should or could be, and as they would like others to perceive it. This is true for both indigenous and foreign writers. Fiction is a construct, and I’m interested in the construction.

I wondered, when I started, if I might find stark differences between the writing of indigenous people and those who came after, and of course I did. But there were shades of grey too.

To begin with a generalisation, much of the non-indigenous writing is, to some extent, the search for paradise. The last book I read in this Raintree project was Next Door to Paradise. There, author Bill Beatty is quite explicit about our yearning for a tropical island paradise, and that search underlies much of the writing that looks at the islands from outside. In The Moon and Sixpence, artist Charles Stickland is looking for “an island lost in a boundless sea, where I could live in some hidden valley, among strange trees.” Jonathan Kellerman’s fictional Knife Island in The Web is not so much a paradise, but it is a place of escape, refuge and hiding. In Gary Disher’s Port Vila Blues, the paradise of Vanuatu is a symbol of the luxury and decadence Judge De Lisle wants to grasp through his corrupt dealings.

Another group of outsiders are more clear eyed about the Pacific and its problems, and are there to help. Missionary wife Jane Thackery, administrators Kenneth Bain in Tonga and Geoff in the Marshalls, educators Rika and Martha in PNG, even the expat police in Graeme Kent’s Devil-devil. They have all come to make a difference to the islands, although some may be more interested in their own advancement. While we may intend to come in a spirit of partnership, there is in all of these stories an inevitable assumption that if we want it for our paradise we can’t leave it to fend of itself – we’ll need to construct some of that paradise for ourselves.

The indigenous writing is palpably and inevitably different. It was also hard to find, so I’ve only a small pool to draw from. The thread I detected running through each was traditional culture and the need to nurture and protect it. There may also be ideas of paradise here, but are they the writers’ or mine? Joseph Veramu writing in Fiji, Daryl Tarte in Kiribati, Alan Duff and Patricia Grace in New Zealand, John Pule in Niue, Albert Wendt in Samoa and Kiana Davenport in Hawaii all describe aspects of a traditional islands life, and most track some of the struggle to retain it.

There is a third group to talk about, the in-betweeners. Writers of mixed descent who have a place in both worlds. Many of them are estranged from their island cultures. Senior Sergeant Thea Dari-Jones has come to Thursday Island curious about her mother’s heritage there. Another cop, Detective Sergeant Louise Townsend is much more ambivalent about her i-Kiribati identity. Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s unnamed narrator is looking for answers in his Cook Islands legacy that he hasn’t found in his life in New Zealand. Then there is the perhaps uncategorisable non-indigenous, but non-colonising Chinese community in Kathleen Tyau’s Makai, one of my favourite books of the year. What do these writers tell us about the islands?

There is something that unites all of these perspectives. All of the writers I’ve encountered this year tell tales that seek out communities and connections. They are all human stories. Some of the characters may be seeking some abstract and unattainable paradise that we have been taught exists on a warm tropical island. But, while Beatty’s depiction of the popular paradise may include “lying on a lonely beach watching the lazy breakers”, none of us, even the curmudgeonly Charles Stickland, wants to be truly alone. We may think we are looking for paradise, but I suspect what we each really want is to find our identity amongst others, and perhaps to be at peace.

There is a saying in aid circles, and probably more broadly, although I’ve not tracked down its origins, about madmen, missionaries and mercenaries. Some variations add or substitute mystics and misfits. I’ve certainly found them all in my Raintree Café journey. I hope to come back from time to time and meet a few more of them. I haven’t in this project managed to ready any fiction from Tonga. I really wanted to get back to PNG to read some indigenous writing from there. I would have loved to have introduced you to one of my favourite books from the islands, Will Randall’s Solomon Time. I kept meaning to get back the library to borrow Déwé Gorodé’s The Wreck but didn’t ever seem to manage it. And I liked Lani Wendt-Young’s Leila and Graeme Kent’s Sergeant Kella enough to want to follow their adventures in later books.

It’s time to move on, though. While I’m sure the islands will call me back from time to time, I feel the need to broaden my reading horizons a little. So, if you enjoyed your pizza at the Raintree Café and you’ve finished your ngali nut pie, maybe you’d like to join me in 2015 for Tea and Penguins?

Posted in Action/Adventure, Australia, Children's fiction, Classic fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Cook Islands, Crime and Suspense, Fiji, French Polynesia, Historical fiction, Kiribati, Magic realism, Marshall Islands, Memoir, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Romance, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Speculative Fiction, Tonga, Uncategorized, United States of America, Women Writers, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Next Door To Paradise

Bill Beatty. Next Door To Paradise: Australia’s Countless Islands. Cassell Australia, 1965.

Lunch at the Raintree Cafe has tried to limit itself to fiction. There’s just too much non-fiction out there to help with my problem of decision paralysis, and there are a whole bunch of other reasons that I’ve stuck, with one exception, to fiction in this blog. But when a kind friend thinks of you when he’s browsing in a second-hand bookshop and buys you an interesting little hardcover from 1965, and when that interesting little hardcover is called Next Door To Paradise, how can you not be tempted to bend the rules? It seemed the perfect book to round out my year at the Raintree Cafe.

The subtitle of Bill Beatty’s book is “Australia’s Countless Islands”. I’m ashamed to say I’ve barely been to any of them. Not Rottnest or Kangaroo, not Phillip or Dunk, not Melville or Goat or King. If I had been, I wonder would they now bear any resemblance to the places Beatty has described for us?

Beatty’s foreword to the book is telling. It begins:

Island living has as primitive appeal to all of us. Every man, sooner or later, feels the irresistible call of the islands stirring his blood – the strangely fascinating remoteness of island life. How often we weary of civilisation and have the urge to get away from it all and live a back-to-nature life. Fishing, the tang of the sea, lying on a lonely beach watching the lazy breakers curling on the white sands or swimming in the quiet waters of a palm fringed lagoon – these things fuse themselves into the spell of our island dreams.

Beatty is looking for paradise, and everywhere he looks, it seems, he finds it. Early on I paused in my reading to scour the endpapers for a clue as to the book’s motive. Was it commissioned by some government tourism authority or sponsored by an airline? At each island Beatty visits the inhabitants appear blissfully, perhaps implausibly happy. The employees of BHP apparently rejoice in their “all-electric homes fitted with modern refrigerators, hot water service and cooking appliances” in their company-built township on Cockatoo Island, north of Derby, Western Australia. The happy natives in the missions on the Northern Territory islands of Croker, Goulburn, Elcho, Bathurst and Melville seem, in Beatty’s observation, to lead contented lives making baskets and wood carvings for the tourist trade and do not “have any desire to leave their idyllic home for Darwin or elsewhere on the mainland, and those who do always want to return”. At the same time the “part-aborigines are taught farming, stock-raising and other occupations that will help them to become self-supporting.”

It is confronting to read what we might now recognise as Stolen Generations practices so mildly observed, but Beatty is also clearly admiring, if sometimes patronising, of indigenous Australian culture:

The aborigine is a natural artist, completely absorbed and joyful in the performance of ceremonies and corroborees and in the making and decorating of weapons. He appreciates a ‘pretty fella’ piece of work just as we do, but his artistic talent has become so interwoven with other aspects of his life that function, rather than beauty or originality, has become paramount in his art. Each totemic group of various clans has its own art pattern with a song or myth in which its magical power lies. The song is chanted when the design is being applied to any object, or when a sacred emblem is being displayed. This is all part of the aborigine’s desire to establish a beneficial relationship with his environment.

Beatty is often careful to note the indigenous history of many of the islands he visits, such as at Moreton Island, not far from Brisbane, “known to the aborigines as Moolginin, which means ‘where the hills reach the sun’.” He is also, though, to some extent of his time. He blandly notes the now-discredited line that the Tasmanian aborigines died out “in the sanctuary set aside for them on Flinders Island”, and dispassionately describes the death of another distinctive culture when “Tribal murder, sickness and malnutrition” caused the few remaining traditional owners of Bentick Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria to be “evacuated by the authorities to the mission station on Mornington Island.”

Another perspective that has changed considerably with time is our view of Nauru. Nauru was until 1968 administered jointly by Britain, Australia and New Zealand and so qualified in 1965 as one of ‘Australia’s Countless Islands’. A trusteeship allowed those countries to continue to exploit the phosphate products of which the island is largely constructed, and created, according to Beatty, yet another island paradise:

Hunger and poverty are unknown on Nauru with its social services and full employment… an efficient public transport system… and… schools [that] provide separate education for Europeans and native children.

Phosphate royalties at one time made Nauruans some of the wealthiest people in the world.

If Beatty is blind to any dissatisfaction that indigenous Australians might have about their treatment by white interlopers to their island paradises, he is positively partisan about Australia’s role in the fate of Nauruans. At the time of Beatty’s writing there was conjecture about where to move the population of Nauru once the phosphate was due to run out in the coming thirty years or so. That there was any question that perhaps they might stay in their ancestral home seems not to have entered into the discussion, at least as Beatty relays it. His arrogance is breathtaking:

The idea that Australia should create a [resettled] ‘sovereign nation’, with a population no bigger than that of a country town… is preposterous. Australians are not surrendering their title to or control over any of her territory. The Nauruans will have the right to manage their local affairs. For the rest, they should be grateful for what is being offered them. Many a derelict mining community in Australia would have been glad to be treated half as well.

Nauru has, since then, changed both for better and for worse, achieving that preposterous sovereignty but also experiencing a considerable drop in living standards.

Other changes from Beatty’s time are equally striking. He describes the “motor ship with harpoon guns [which] bags as many as 170 whales a year”, providing an economic mainstay for Norfolk Island. Also long gone, I imagine, is the service on the five hour flight to Norfolk from Sydney, which included “a banquet-like meal of seafood, chicken champeaux, tossed salads and other courses”, along with complementary “martini, moselle [and] burgandy”.

The wreck of the SS Maheno on Fraser Island

The wreck of the SS Maheno on Fraser Island

Perhaps more evolutionary has been the change in other places. Logging no longer takes place on Fraser island and World Heritage tourism has overtaken it as the major activity on the island. The 1935 wreck of the Maheno, already a favourite fishing spot when Beatty visited, is becoming less and less visible above the sand. Similarly, it is hard to conceive that life on Sydney Harbour’s Goat Island has remained unchanged from the 1960s fishing idyll of the Maritime Services Board staff.

Next Door to Paradise is an odd little book. It seems part almanac, providing various statistics and other interesting if largely unrelated details about many of the islands it surveys. We learn in a single paragraph that Koolan Island, neighbour to the previously mentioned Cockatoo, is being developed for its iron ore deposits and was visited by the Queen in 1963. The book is also part travel guide, extolling the tourist offerings of Rottnest Island and praising the delights of the Whitsundays, including Hayman Island, whose “Royal Hayman Hotel is the gleaming answer to any who doubt Australia’s competence to cater for tourists who demand luxury”.

The book ends with a quote, unattributed, from Arthur Symons’ poem ‘In the Wood of Finvara':

I would wash the dust of the world in a soft green flood:

Here, between sea and sea, in the fairy wood,

I have found a delicate, wave-green solitude…

I’m reminded of the quote Kiara Davenport used at the beginning of Shark Dialogues, which also spoke of the loneliness of islands. But these aren’t islander views. In fact, island cultures are some of the most social, the least lonely cultures in the world. With such geographically constrained resources, island societies tend to exert enormous social pressure on their citizens, as we saw in places such as Kiribati, to ensure everyone acts for the greater good. Despite our persistent dreams of a lazy life on an island paradise, authors like Albert Wendt and Joseph Veramu demonstrate that island life rarely avoids hard work. As the book’s foreword reminds us, “Australia is immensely rich in islands”. It is also the richer for its islands it calls its own, whether they are, or ever were, the paradise Bill Beatty was able to see them as. I really should go and see for myself.

Posted in Australia, Nauru, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Shark Dialogues

Kiana Davenport. Shark Dialogues. Plume, 1995. ISBN: 9781439192436

I think Kiana Davenport may be a very angry woman. As Shark Dialogues traces generations of Hawaiian history we learn quite a lot of why that may be so. Hawaiian history, told from a Hawaiian perspective, is 200 and more years of slow but inexorable encroachment by foreign settlers, foreign cultures and foreign diseases. It’s a long, slow and heartbreaking decline, and you can either be despairing or enraged.

The book starts with a quote from Belgian-born author Marguerite Yourcenar: “She was born on an island, and that is already a beginning of solitude”. There is much in the lives of Pono, and her granddaughters Ming, Jess, Vanya and Rachel that comes from being alone. Loneliness for each of them can be debilitating, but it can also build resilience and self-reliance. It can make you understand more keenly who you can rely on.

Although we trace several generations from the unlikely marriage of a Tahitian princess to a one-eyed Dutch shipwreck survivor, it is the 20th century Pono, her daughters and granddaughters, we come to know most. Pono is kahuna: “She could look someone to death”. Abandoned by her fearful parents, as a child she lives on the fringes of society like an animal, opportunistic and mistrusting, until she meets Duke. Duke is something like a Polynesian god, landed, wealthy and educated, but cursed with a bloodline seemingly prone to ma’i pake – leprosy. When the disease finally claims him he is forced to hide from the world, and Pono is back to life on her own and on the edge.

There is so much going on in Shark Dialogues, it’s hard to know what to tell you, what to tease out. There is the vast history of Hawaiian settlement, and Pono’s ancestors’ various roles in the fight for a sovereign identity for their nation. There is the fiercely felt love between Pono and Duke, who are forced to live separately but always so connected that Pono, at least, seems incapable of feeling anything for anyone else. There is the battle each of her granddaughters must have with their mixed race identities, denied by Pono the full knowledge of their ancestry and left to wonder where they belong, and how much of Pono is in each of them after all.

Overall, though, there is a sense of rage. It feels relentless. The word itself appears 25 times in the book, which may or may not be a lot, but it was the overwhelming feeling I had in reading Davenport’s novel, and it left me a bit exhausted.

After carping so long about a lack of indigenous voices, about colonialism and reading only a beads-and-mirrors, progress-is-good perspective on island life, I now feel churlish in criticising Shark Dialogues. But, I found Pono more or less unlikeable. Her revolutionary hothead granddaughter Vanya is pigheaded and, in my view, going the wrong way about seeking a better life for her people, and sometimes not even sure what she is doing it for. Pono’s lifelong friend Run Run is wise and wonderful, but too easily content to let everyone suffer from Pono’s pride. Rough and ready outback Australian Simon is unafraid to speak truth to Vanya and her co-conspirators and is thusly distrusted and reviled. Pono’s hatred of haole is violent and destructive, but ignores the fact that she has white blood herself, and is ignored in her mixed race granddaughter Jess (though not in the betrayal by her mother). And the conversion of the cousins to suddenly doting granddaughters once they come to understand Pono’s history was, for me, fairly implausible.

There is much beauty, here, though, and much to learn and contemplate. The plight of those suffering from leprosy, if even half of it is based in reality, is terrifying and heartbreaking. So too, the lives of the lava refugees, who have had their homes taken by the encroaching flows of molten earth. The noble figure of the last Queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, and her turbulent rule is a cipher for the competition between races to own paradise.

Davenport’s love of the Hawaiian islands is evident in her prose, which is evocative if, in my view, teetering a little on the edge of purple:

And the sea, the sea, quickening in her veins! A coral reef ticking, nerves jangly like tambourine-fins of wrestling oarfish, a whispering like planchette conversations of wise octopi. She closed her eyes, seeing prismatic colors on backs of leaping dolphin, and gold on gold – the sun on Polynesian surfers, bodies arched into calligraphy.

These feelings are given to Jess, the hap haole granddaughter who has become a vet in New York and has, somewhere along the way, lost her own daughter to that other, non-Hawaiian identity. Something in the force of the Pacific’s waves, and of Pono’s fierce will, has brought her back to her Hawaiian identity. When that identity is in your blood it must be difficult not to be angry about the injustices of history and today.

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, United States of America, Women Writers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sina and Tinilau

Vilsoni Hereniko, illustrated by Jasper Schreurs. Sina and Tinilau. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, 1997. ISBN: 9820201276

Apparently in all cultures beautiful princesses need rescuing. Sometimes they just have to wait for the handsome prince to come along, and sometimes they have to kiss the frog and hope. But beauty it seems, is always rewarded with beauty.

This telling of the Sina and Tinilau story of various Polynesian legends is more or less the same as the European Frog Prince story: spoiled young girl reluctantly befriends ugly animal, who transforms into a more suitable suitor only after she sees past his ugliness. It’s a simple, sweet story for kids, but what makes the book Sina and Tinilau special is its illustrations.

Jasper Schreurs is a Dutch storyboard artist and digital illustrator who lived for some time in Fiji – long enough to have his design chosen for a commemorative $2 note in 2000. With assistance from Graham Taylor, Jane Borg and Melissa Wauchope, Schreurs has used this oversized publication to not only depict the story of Sina and the eel, but also to teach us a little about birds, flowers, insects, shells, sea life and cultural objects from around the Pacific. You can see some sample images online, but the colours in the Hawaii University site seriously undersell the vibrancy of the printed article.

At the Fiji Museum, Suva

At the Fiji Museum, Suva

Through these pages we learn both the Western and Polynesian names for fish from the region, as well as the names of various Birds of Paradise, and the styles of canoes built in different islands. It’s a beautifully depicted glimpse into the extraordinary diversity of Pacific Island cultures, touching on Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Niue, and Easter Island. A vast expanse of the world, brought together through a story that is echoed in so many places.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Pacific Islands production without a little chaos. Beautiful as the depictions of insects and flowers are, they seem to have come adrift from their corresponding labels, so that the bug fairly universally known as a lady beetle is listed as a frangipani, and the flower that I’m fairly confident is a frangipani is captioned as a shield bug from Fiji. The prosaic explanation is a production error, but, just perhaps, the labels are right, and a shield bug can become a frangipani if you see through its outer shell to its inner beauty.

Posted in Children's fiction, Chile, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Uncategorized, Vanuatu | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Devil-Devil

GW Kent. Devil-Devil. Constable & Robinson, 2011. ISBN: 9781849017800

I’ve debated with myself (and a couple of commenters) on this blog about who gets to speak for whom. It’s something I’ve thought about at some point in pretty much every book I’ve read this year. Whose voice is this? What authority does it have? How deeply do I trust the ‘truths’ it is offering me? How much of it is fiction and how much fact, or at least experience? Have I truly learned something about a culture or a life by reading this, or am I asking too much of an author speaking outside her culture or within it? Am I asking too much of fiction?

I particularly asked these questions while reading Devil-Devil, because the book brought so much that was new to me about traditional Solomon Islands culture and belief. Author GW Kent is an Englishman who in the 1960s worked in the Solomons as an educator, visiting remote schools and teaching their teachers to use the educational broadcast programs he produced. The Solomons Kent knows were recovering from the short, massive onslaught of World War II and the changes it had brought. Exposure the American soldiers, and particularly black American soldiers, and the impressive western goods they brought with them. Inching towards independence under the increasingly reluctant rule of the British, who were slowly coming to realise that dominion over palm and pine could not last forever.

In these Solomon Islands of the 1960s Kent has conjured Sergeant Ben Kella and Sister Conchita. Sister Conchita is an American Marist nun, newly arrived in the Solomons, with an unconventional approach and a talent for getting herself into trouble. I have the feeling that the Sister is likely to grow into herself in books two and three of this series, and she’s an interesting character in her own right, but it is Kella I want to concentrate on here.

Ben Kella has been raised in two cultures. As a child he was identified by his Lau elders as their aofia, their hereditary peacemaker. He’s also been identified by the white missionaries and government officials as a potential leader of the coming nation. He’s been brought up and educated in the Catholic faith, and sent overseas to study in Australia, the US and UK. He’s the highest ranking Solomon Islander officer in the Royal Solomon Islands Police, and so far he’s been successful in balancing his competing cultures and roles. There is, though, a story hanging over him, a death he was held responsible for, that suggest that the balance has been a fine one, not always completely successful.

Japanese War Memorial, Mt Austin, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands

Japanese War Memorial, Mt Austin, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands

A bit like our friend Sam in Pacific, Ben Kella is a little too good to be true. He’s a war hero, respected by friend and foe alike. He’s intelligent and educated in both of his cultures, and a leader in both of them also. He’s an amazing rugby player who once single-handedly won a match for the Solomon Islands against Fiji and went on to play rugby league in Australia. His family is wealthy, owning a number of copra plantations on Malatia. He’s apparently irresistible to the Sikiana women living with the bush people on Malaita. Just a tad too perfect, really. Even his flaws are really triumphs, because they come from his need to straddle the two worlds he lives in.

His close friend, school principal Solomon Bulko sums up Kella’s dilemma:

Sooner or later you’re going to have to make up your mind whether you’re the progressive, technologically trained black hope for the future, or just another cosy, old-fashioned witch doctor.

But for now Kella’s not choosing one over the other. We find him back in his home province of Malaita, investigating a series of seemingly separate but tantalisingly linked crimes, acting as both police sergeant and aofia at once, and managing to piss off pretty much everyone in the process. Solving all of these mysteries will rely on his skills as a police officer, but they have much more to do with his traditional knowledge than anything he has learned in his police training. He’ll need to draw on both of his sources of authority to stop an impending blood feud.

I’m not good at detail so, like many of the mystery-type books I’ve read this year for Raintree, and last year for Caphs, I found it hard to keep all of the various stories in Devil-Devil straight. What is Australian plantation manager John Deacon up to and why does he seem to want to do Sister Conchita harm? What does school boy Peter Oro suspect, that has driven him to ask for a ghost-caller to investigate his grandfather’s death? Why has Pazabosi come down from the mountains to put a death curse on a coastal village and on Ben Kella? Is it part of a plan to relaunch Marching Rule? Where is the missing American anthropologist and did he have anything to do with the theft of the sacred havu? Why has the body of Lofty Herman suddenly turned up, and who killed him all those years ago? And exactly how many times did Senda Iabuli die?

Way too much going on for my poor brain. Of course it is all interwoven, and expertly untangled by Sergeant Kella, with a little help from the quick-minded Sister. Somehow it is all solved and explained somewhere towards the end, and all is forgiven, and the Sergeant and the Sister have something of a grudging respect for eachother. It’s a relationship that I think will be interesting to watch in the following books in the Kella and Conchita series. I’m not sure, though, that my feeble mind is up to following the twists and turns of Solomon Islands culture and intrigue as it rubs up against colonialism, Catholicism and the modern world.

Posted in Crime and Suspense, Solomon Islands | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pacific

Judy Nunn. Pacific. Random House, 2004. ISBN: 9781864712520

Samantha Lindsay is a young Australian soapie starlet whose career is taking off. The English audience love her role in “Family and Friends”, and she’s getting noticed for her work on the stage. Now she’s landed her first big Hollywood leading role, and it’s as though the part is made for her, not least because it is producing strange echoes of her beloved adopted home at Fareham.

Sam’s agent Reginald Harcourt finds her grating at their first meeting, but he decides that he likes her nonetheless. I felt very much the same. She’s a bit too good to be true – brilliant but humble, talented but prepared to take advice and work hard, beautiful and graceful but unaffected. But she’s hard not to like, a bit like Judy Nunn’s romantic historical adventure itself.

There are two stories at play here. One is Samantha’s as she travels to Vanuatu to film Torpedo Junction, a war-time drama inspired by the life of Englishwoman Jane Thackeray. In the telling, we dip in and out of Jane’s story, following her from her girlhood in Fareham with her dear friend Phoebe Chisholm, through her marriage to doctor and missionary Martin Thackeray, to her life as a nurse and advocate for the ni-Vanuatu in Port Vila during and after World War II.

Wartime Remnants at Luganville, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

Wartime remnants at Luganville, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

It’s clear that Sam and Jane’s lives are linked somehow, but it is Phoebe, an old woman alone at Chisholm Hall back in Fareham, who Sam seems to have some sort of spiritual connection with. So what is the real tie between Sam and Jane? Nunn is a master at keeping us wondering until the end, and she does it without seeding a lot of irrelevant rubbish to lead us astray. While the end is a perhaps unexpected twist, the layering of the story to get there is plausible and logical, and the journey was one I was happy to take.

Through Sam’s modern story I got to revisit some old haunts, such as Iririki Island, Hideaway Island, Chantilly’s and the yacht club, and to be reminded of wonderful sights, sounds and tastes, like mother hubbard dresses, Bislama, string bands, Tusker beer, the waterfront markets. Through Jane’s historical narrative I gained something of an appreciation of the condominium government of the New Hebrides, the use made of the Vanuatu islands during the war and its impact, the lead-up to and consequences of independence.

And unlike our criminal friend from Port Vila Blues Wyatt’s perfunctory views of the landscape, Nunn gives us some lovely images to contemplate:

Never had she seen colours of such intensity. It was as if the artist who had painted this landscape hadn’t bothered with a palette at all, but had simply dipped his brush into the paint pots, so unblended, so pure and stark were the contrasts.

The blurb quotes – and their sources – tell you plenty about Pacific. Woman’s Day calls it “A fabulous read”. The Australian Women’s Weekly says it is “A rattling good yarn of secrets and passions”. The Illawarra Mercury talked of “A powerful novel of love and revenge set in a Pacific paradise”. I’m tempted myself to use terms like ‘epic sweep’ and ‘historical saga’. The term ‘bodice ripper’ kept coming to mind as I read it, although it’s more sophisticated and complex than the formulaic historical romances that spawned that phrase. A page-turner it certainly is.

A bit like the other book I’ve read this year set in Vanuatu, Pacific is a sympathetic portrayal of the ni-Vanuatu people, but it’s not really about them. Locals Savi, Sera, Pascal, Selena and the others have vital roles to play in the story, and they portrayed as intelligent, independent people who are rooted in their own culture but also grappling with a new one – two new ones, in fact – that have come to dominate their own. This is, though, a story of Western experiences of Vanuatu, both during World War II and in the present. It can’t be anything else, and it doesn’t need to be. I find myself still wondering, though, what a ni-Van view of this same story might be.

Vanuatu has a quite innovative home-grown theatre and television production scene, including the rather wonderful TV soap “Love Patrol”, which you can sometimes catch in Australia on NITV. Yet apparently there is still no local writing making it to broader audiences, at least not in English. The same is true, of course, for many other Pacific Island nations. I wonder, though, what the barriers are? Why, in this age of e-books and self publishing, the odious Mark Young, of The Best Ever Book of Tuvaluan Jokes fame, can also publish books called The Best Ever Guide to Demotivation for Vanuatuans, but I still can’t find an indigenous ni-Van voice in fiction?

Posted in Historical fiction, Vanuatu, Women Writers | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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