Review: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Review: Moloka’i by Alan BrennertMoloka'i by Alan Brennert
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on 2004-10-04
Pages: 384
Genres: Literary Fiction
Source: Purchased myself
Add to Goodreads

This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai'i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—-and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka'i. Here her life is supposed to end—-but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

With a vibrant cast of vividly realized characters, Moloka'i is the true-to-life chronicle of a people who embraced life in the face of death.

Thoughts: Way back in 2007, Wendy’s (Musings of a Bookish Kitty) review of this novel put Moloka’i on my radar. My mother had long-ago told me about her trip to Moloka’i when she was in her twenties – she spoke about the extraordinary beauty of the island and meeting the “lepers” (or, as I discovered in this book, sufferers of Hassen’s disease) who continued to live even after their imprisonment came to an end. Her story, Wendy’s review, and my long-love of the Hawaii islands, made me want to read this book.

Sometimes you read a book and think “this book came at the right time”. Almost as though your life led up to a point which required you to read a certain book. Moloka’i was one of those books. I went on holiday to Honolulu this Christmas, and left with a deep appreciation for the islands and its people. Not just for their friendliness and charm, but for the vast suffering they had to endure. From death, disease, and a loss of a kingdom – all of it, I would argue, at the hands of European Americans. Haoles.

So, on to the book. I can’t work out if this book is brilliant because Alan Brennert is a genius – or if he is just a decent writer working with amazing material. Is it a colour-by-numbers of the Sistine Chapel, or a Rembrandt masterpiece of a garbage dump?  I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care.  What I do know is that this is one hell of an epic, and I absolutely adored it all.

Don’t let the depressing premise put you off.  Sure, it starts off with a young girl being sent to a leper colony to die – but Moloka’i is much more than a tragedy, and it’s about so much more than a disease.  If anything, the book proves how life continues on in the most unlikely conditions.  Rachel – our protagonist – lives through an extraordinary chunk of Hawaiian history: from the loss of its kingdom, the bombings at Pearly Harbour, to becoming a US State.  In that time she grows up, and learns to live and love despite the odds.  A lot of it is heartbreaking – I cannot recall how many times I cried – but a lot of it is also beautiful or silly or sexy or thrilling.

This is a book about life, not death.  So think of it, instead, as the life and times of a talented young surfer named Rachel.  I am certain there was a girl like her on Moloka’i – she’d be about my age now, plus or minus a century – and she deserves to be remembered.

Bottom line?  I loved this absolutely book.  Although written by a haole (and been reviewed by a haole) I think most Hawaiians would agree that Alan Brennert perfectly captures the aloha spirit.

And, in case this review left you wondering, here’s a Hawaii Five-O gif to describe my feelings for this book:

Review: A Heart So White by Javier Marias

Review: A Heart So White by Javier MariasA Heart So White by Javier Marias
Published by Vintage
Pages: 279
Genres: Literary Fiction
Add to Goodreads

Javier Marías's A Heart So White chronicles with unnerving insistence the relentless power of the past. Juan knows little of the interior life of his father Ranz; but when Juan marries, he begins to consider the past anew, and begins to ponder what he doesn't really want to know. Secrecy—its possible convenience, its price, and even its civility—hovers throughout the novel. A Heart So White becomes a sort of anti-detective story of human nature. Intrigue; the sins of the father; the fraudulent and the genuine; marriage and strange repetitions of violence: Marías elegantly sends shafts of inquisitory light into shadows and on to the costs of ambivalence.

 I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.

Rec for people who love: Spain, art, languages, the new age whodunnit

Thoughts: This was my first book read because of LibraryThing. I think I was looking for books written by Spanish authors – everyone I know trips over themselves when talking about Arturo Perez-Reverte, but it seems that he is the only Spaniard with any real recognition. Using Wikipedia and Livejournal as my guide, I discovered that Javier Marias writes for El Pais, had an uncle who produced pornography, and a philosopher father imprisoned under Franco. Well, if that didn’t make me love him on the spot – I don’t know what could have.

So, onto my TBR list he went and that was that last I time I thought about him or the book. That is, until I happened to be in an Oxfam bookshop that I rarely visit four months later. And there it was. An unused, unloved and untouched “A Heart so White” begging for a good home. I remembered my five minute online affair with the novel, and snatched it from the shelf. Almost as if I had been afraid someone else had seen it.

And so began a two month long journey with Javier Marias’s narrator – Juan.

Okay, so maybe when I started reading I had my expectations a bit too high. No that’s not right – I just wasn’t ready for the style of the novel, and had had no idea what the book was about when I started to read. In fact, it took me about a month and a half to get past the first thirty pages. Throughout the first thirty pages, I knew the words themselves were beautiful – they were just really difficult. The prose is intense, and lyrical – but it is long. It’s kinda the typical problem a lot of genre fans have with lit fic – the, er, pretentiousness? But JM does not write the way he does merely for gloating rights – it’s just what he is bloody brilliant at. Some authors are can write intense multi-character dialogue, others bloody, brutal fight scenes – and JM is the master at writing a character’s stream of conciousness.

Juan writes – for it is hard for me not to think of him as a real person – the way he thinks. And while his thoughts are stunningly beautiful, until you learn to ride his mind with him, you might be tripping over the plot a bit.

Oh yes, the plot.

Well, I couldn’t quite come up with a decent summary of this book without sounding like a lunatic – that is, until I saw this raving review of Javier Marias’s work in the NYTimes:

A simultaneous translator, recently married to another simultaneous translator, uses the growing friendship between his wife and his father to unravel the mystery behind a suicide that took place before he was born. [ …] If you judged by the summary alone, you might guess that Marías’s fiction is ludicrously melodramatic or cruelly comic or tediously postmodern. It is none of these. On the contrary, all four novels possess an odd combination of true sadness and deeply satisfying wit that I have yet to find in any of Marías’s English or American contemporaries.

At the most basic level, the book is about a man discovering the truth about his father’s life. That’s how the book starts off and ends – but that won’t be why you’ll love this book. Marias’s Juan made me examine my own way of looking at the situations and people around me; inspired the philosopher I had never known was in me.

On another note, this book is excellent for all you armchair travelers out there. We head from Madrid to Havana to New York to the UN to Geneva and back again. Also, I would like to congratulate Margaret Jull Costa on her fabulous translation of this breathtaking novel. ♥

You can read the first chapter of this excellent novel, here.