26 June 2013

Book Review: This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila

When I travel, I particularly enjoy reading books set in the part of the world that I'm visiting, so it's a real pity that Kristiana Kahakauwila didn't write this book five years ago when I visited Hawai'i. Still, it's a good substitute read for the Caribbean, which is one reason the book ended up in my bag. It's not that I think all tropical places are interchangeable--I just like to read books that evoke the same kind of steamy heat when I'm between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.  And as with any tourist destination, this book is a not-always-gentle reminder to readers that just because we may be on vacation, it doesn't mean the rest of the world, with all of its troubles, is.

Kahakauwila's collection of short stories is pretty fantastic. I was drawn in from the first one, which is arguably one of the darkest ones.  In the titular story, we get a group narrative that acts a little like a Greek chorus, where the working class women of Waikiki closely observe a tourist girl and debate whether to interfere with her poor, unsafe choices. They do too little, too late, to the detriment of all.

In another story called "Wanle," Kahakauwila explores the underworld of cockfighting, which makes this the second book I've read in recent years that deals with that bugaboo of subjects that the middle class would rather not talk about (the first one is this incredibly thought provoking and disturbing book).

In "Portrait of a Good Father," we get a girl dealing not only with her father's infidelity but her brother's  death. Both things change her understanding of the world and her parents in heartbreaking ways.

The life of privilege, of white (haole) culture, is in constant conflict in these stories with the non-white Hawaiians--there is talk of water rights, eminent domain, and the overall gentrification of the islands to the point where most people who were born in the islands can no longer afford to live there. This, if nothing else, remains pertinent to my Caribbean travels today.

Throughout all of them, though, Kahakauwila explores themes of belonging, displacement, family, and tradition. Her use of pidgin for much of the dialogue grounds her stories as much as anything, but still is easy to read. She gives us a backstage tour of a world that most tourist never get a glimpse of, and yet it was a world that was intensely familiar to me, both because of my obsessive research for my trip to Big Island in 2008 and because so much of what she wrote resonates with my research and more extensive experience in the Caribbean.  I recommend this book to anybody who values good short stories, but in particular to readers who live in or travel to tropical, tourist destinations.

NB: Hogarth publishes this book this month. I read an advance reading copy of it, provided at my request by my sales rep. 

8 comments:

  1. I've got this on in my TBR as part of a blog tour. I do love short story collections and now I'm really looking forward to it after reading your review!

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    1. I'll be sure to look for your review when it comes!

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  2. Holy coinkidinks, Batman! I'm reading an advance copy of this right now too and liking it. Then I read the back cover's author blurb, discovering that Kahakauwila works right across the street from me at Western Washington U. Time for a visit, eh? Fortified by your review, I'm off to keep reading. Enjoy Anguilla for me!

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    1. Laurie, I saw that on Goodreads right after I posted my own rating of it there. You'll have to meet the author for me and tell me what she's like.

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  3. This sounds like a really good book, although one I probably wouldn't read while on vacation in Hawaii (you know, if that happens) cos I'd feel bad about being the tourist.

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    1. Easy--just read it as prep work *before* a trip to Hawai'i. It would totally count as research. Totally.

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  4. I just wanted to say thank you for the thoughtful review you posted. I appreciated how you saw and drew out the complicated nature of the stories-- it feels great to have a reviewer do that! And now I've added the Herzog book to my reading list!

    Laurie, I'll be reading at Village Books in the fall (dates still to be confirmed). Perhaps we can meet then!

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    1. Thanks for reading, Kristiana. I so enjoyed your book!

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