Marianne Wheelaghan. Food of Ghosts. Pilrig Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780956614445
I confess to struggling to come up with a review for Food of Ghosts. I’m not a crime thriller/murder mystery/police procedural fan at the best of times, and I seem to have had a bit of an overdose of them in recent times (what is it with crime writers and Pacific islands anyway? I can see a post devoted to that question before the year is out). And I found the main character in Food of Ghosts, Detective Sergeant Louise Townsend, with her debilitating anxieties and her ambivalence about her identity, largely unlikeable. The pace was too slow for me, and there were too many side stories that seemingly went nowhere and contributed nothing.
So I went for inspiration to the interwebs and back to the blog that had first alerted me to the book. Blogger Marita is, by her own description half i-Kiribati and half Australian, and her review gave me such a different perspective on Food of Ghosts that I’m tempted to go back and read it over with Marita’s words in mind.
In one of my recent posts I pondered identity and writing, but my very different experience to Marita’s of Food of Ghosts has got me thinking about identity and reading. Although I’m afraid I’m not coming up with anything particularly deep or meaningful.
Why am I doing this project? Because I’m interested. Because I know a little about some Pacific island countries and want to know more. Because I feel these places are under-represented in fiction, particularly in indigenous writing in non-indigenous languages, and I’m interested in doing my tiny bit to draw some attention to what there is that’s available. But, having apparently so profoundly missed the point of much of Food of Ghosts, I wonder what I’m getting from this process, and what I’m giving.
The author of Food of Ghosts, Marianne Wheelaghan, is a Scot who has spent time as a teacher in Kiribati and Papua New Guinea. And without having read a local’s perspective on the book, I’d have written a review that said a bit about how this was an adequate crime mystery with some pacing problems that shed some presumably fairly accurate light on Kiribati geography and culture but didn’t give me any real insights beyond an outsider’s view of the superficial and common-to-the-Pacific cultural traits that I feel I already know a bit about. It took a local translator in the form of the review on The Little Island That Could to give me a different perspective on the story and the significance of some of its details.
Is this good enough? Should the author have done more to let me in on the connotations of the journey she was taking me on? I suspect not. To explain more of the context and meaning of every interaction would have ended up treating the reader like an idiot. Authors, I guess, just have to do their best with the culture they are working in and hope that the readers who join them have enough of a cultural map to be able to follow along, or at least learn something on the way.
To be fair to myself too, it’s not as though Food of Ghosts is a masterful piece of cultural interpretation that I’ve just been too dense to properly understand. I do think that Louisa’s reluctance to reveal her i-Kiribati identity is never really explained, and I think the side-story of her apparent obsessive-compulsive disorder is either underdone or just a distraction. But the book also brings to life the wry practicalities of island life, from the police catching a bus to a crime scene to the details of Louise’s extended family:
It seemed giving Reteta a few hours’ work a week also meant agreeing to let Reteta and her family camp in her back garden. Her scowling husband, their four giggling daughters, a twenty-something nephew, all smiles and muscles and the owner of the motorbike, and an elderly, anxious, skinny mother-in-law were usually there.
Family and community are very different in the Pacific to the culture I was brought up in. No one dies alone, and you certainly don’t live alone either. As Marita’s review reflects, it is the interactions of people and communities that form the complexity and joy and frustration of the islands. Insiders, outsiders, and inbetweeners, they’re all living big lives and making big decisions in very small places, and they can’t help but impact on someone nearby. Particularly when they are family and they are camping in your back yard.