One of my reading goals for 2017 was to read more books by indigenous authors and because of that project I had the pleasure of picking up Island of Shattered Dreams. This book is written by an indigenous Tahitian author and was translated from the French by Jean Anderson.
Island of Shattered Dreams is a lyrically written family saga
set in French Polynesia on Tahiti, Huahine and some of the surrounding islands. It follows Tematua, a young French Polynesian man who fights for France in Second World War in Europe and the country he returns to. We get to see the way in which this experience has shaped him and we get to watch him fall in love with Emily, a half-English half-Polynesia woman. Not only do we follow their love story but we also follow the lives of their children. This is a story with relationships that work out and relationships that are doomed from the very beginning. Furthermore, the latter half of the story is set against the backdrop of the first nuclear tests in French Polynesia.
This is a book that is fiercely critical of colonialism and globalisation and the way in which it has changed the islands and the people of French Polynesia. Chantal T Spitz certainly doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment of the way in which the French have abused the people of Polynesia nor is she sympathetic towards the Polynesians who have embraced the French way, seemingly selling their souls out of greed and lust for power.
This is contrasted with the strong connection which Tematua, Emily and many of their children have to the land. They are deeply connected to the land and through it to their ancestors and as such are willing to protect it in anyway that they can. This is further reflected in the passages of the book which are oration or poetry spoken by Tematua and his descendants that are laden with nature imagery and rich with legend and tradition. As such, Spitz almost seeks to justify her critical stance on colonialism and the way in which it has eroded French Polynesian culture through demonstrating her own deep emotional and spiritual connection to her land and her characters through these passages. It certainly is really effective and left me very perturbed about the effects of colonialism on the islands of French Polynesia which are still a French Colony today (as a native of a former colony it’s generally easy to light a fire within me in regards the evils of colonialism but this made me especially angry and frustrated, achieving what it set out to achieve). The one critique I would make of this aspect, however, was that it bordered on preachy at times and it sometimes felt like the story was being sacrificed in order to allow the author to comment on particular issues.
While the novel is indeed great at providing Spitz a platform through which to critique the French occupation, colonisation and abuse of French Polynesia it is perhaps somewhat less effective at communicating the story which it set out to tell. The novel really reads more like a series of interlinking short stories than a novel, we really just got tidbits about certain characters and then they might pop up later in passing. I think the effect of this was that no character ended up being a fully realised as they might have been and I was left with a lot of questions about the lives of the children who hadn’t been considered in as much depth as some of their siblings.
All in all, though the story that was told if too brief to provide more than a sketch of most of the characters was engaging. The writing was rich and really evoked a sense of the land and Spitz really managed to communicate the pain which colonisation has caused to the people of French Polynesia and the pain that it would cause to their ancestors if they could see their country now.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Note: French Polynesia is still a territory of France but I plan to count it as a unique country for my 2017 read the world goal as French Polynesia has it’s own distinct culture and is 1000s of miles away from France. Furthermore, I think this business of European and other wealthy countries still having territories is unacceptable, either French Polynesia should be independent or the people should have all of the rights that French people have.