No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, February 03, 2008

#15: Frangipani -- Célestine Hitiura Vaite

... people always say rain is good for the plants, and that is true, but rain ... is music to a woman's ears and warms the soul. When it splatters on the tin roof it makes you feel a bit melancholic, and takes you back to some happy days, or to those black years you've had but survived because you're a woman and surviving is not a foreign word to women from anywhere in the world. Watching rain is magic. It calms the anxious spirit and the tormented soul. It gives women hope. It reminds us how strong we are.

Frangipani, though it focuses on Matarena Mahi -- champion professional cleaner, excellent listener and typically Tahitian mother -- may be the story of her daughter Leilani. Perhaps it's the set of encyclopaedias that Matarena bought for her clever and inquisitive daughter when she found herself unable to answer the little girl's questions. Perhaps it's the lack of a strong father-figure (Leilani's father Pito is emotionally absent even when he's around) or Leilani's own cleverness. But the times are a-changing and Matarena's 'Welcome into Womanhood' talk, however much she updates it from the usual old-fashioned superstitions and folktales ("Only buy two-sided tablecloths, that way you'll have two tablecloths for the price of one. Don't eat in front of people if you can't share. Don't get married before you have at least one child with your man.") is not going to be enough for her daughter.

I'm not a mother, but this novel took me right into the loving, sometimes quarrelsome closeness of a healthy mother/daughter relationship. I felt Matarena's frustration at her daughter's independence, her fears on hearing of her daughter's first boyfriend, her pride in Leilani's academic achievements.

Frangipani also immerses the reader in Tahitian life: a culture and language spiced with French and pidgin, a life of genteel poverty with plenty of pride, a society where the neighbours are all 'relatives' and everyone knows everybody else's business. Vaite's insider knowledge (she was born and grew up in a fibreglass shack in Tahiti) makes for a rich and idiosyncratic style that's easy to read -- and easy to imagine being read aloud. With the best will in the world, an outsider writing about this society would glamorise or sensationalise some aspects: Vaite is clearly writing about a life she knows intimately, and her tone is affectionate and matter-of-fact.

On first reading, I kept wondering when the story was going to start: I seemed to be reading anecdote after anecdote, isolated incidents without any clear direction. Only on reaching the end and looking back did I realise how subtly the story of Leilani (and the parallel growth and achievement of her mother, inspired by her daughter just as Leilani's been supported and encouraged by Matarena) had been conveyed.

I'm not sure this is a book I'd have chosen independently: it was recommended by a friend. Vaite's voice is distinctive and the flow of her prose is warm and amiable, making this ideal holiday reading.

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