‘Island of Shattered Dreams’, penned by Chantal T. Spitz, is a family saga set in the lush islands of French Polynesia. It is the first ever novel written by an indigenous Tahitian writer.
Maevarua and Teuira lead a peaceful life on a serene island in French Polynesia until their son – Tematua – is recruited to fight for the Motherland during World War II. Much to the dismay of his parents, he agrees to leave his beloved country to go where he is needed.
Upon returning from Europe, Tematua doesn’t want to talk about his war experience. He slowly reacquaints himself with the islands when he meets beautiful Emere. Their love strikes like lightning.
As the years pass by, Tematua and Emere – now having three wonderful children – still delight in being together. But their comfortable and quiet existence is suddenly, and once again, disturbed by the arrival of white people from the Motherland.
A family saga, love story, and a political statement of sorts woven into one continuous narrative is a highly risky combination. Unless your name is Chantal T. Spitz, and you are a prominent Tahitian writer bold enough to mix poetry with the gloomy and rather unpleasant subject of colonialism. Then such amalgamation turns out to be a truly winning combination.
I am not quite sure why, but whenever a novel is set in French Polynesia, it exudes such a delightful and unique atmosphere that you simply get lost in the world the author has created. Ms Spitz, too, managed to paint a vivid picture of idyllic, romantic islands, where Mā’ohi people enjoy their sheltered lives largely unaware of what’s beyond their shores. The little country seems to be a blissful microcosm of peace and tranquility, filled with warm-hearted and good-natured inhabitants. And do not think that this rosy portrayal of the archipelago is coincidental; or done to charm readers with the ambience of the place. Although the latter indeed works its magic, the very one-sided depiction serves a completely different purpose.
When a writer decides to broach a highly sensitive topic with the aim of eliciting a certain response, provoking a reaction, it needs to give the audience proper stimuli; something that will make them think and understand the message hidden between the lines. To do it, Chantal T. Spitz chose to juxtapose the perfect and unspoilt islands of French Polynesia with the imperialist, not-caring-for-anything-or-anybody Motherland. And she chose well. Her descriptions perfectly accentuate the polarity between the colonizers and the colonized. Even those who are not familiar with the subject matter will understand how great an impact France had on the small Pacific nation. From recruiting Polynesians to fight against the enemy during the Second World War to freely conducting nuclear tests on the pristine atolls to imposing Western values on the local communities, the European country significantly affected their overseas territory. For indigenous people, who consider their land almost sacred and take great pride in their ancient heritage, this piece of history still evokes a sense of injustice. That is why the novel oozes with concealed anger. But, quite honestly, you can’t really blame the author for that, can you?
Now, despite clearly highlighting the contrast between the righteous and the villains, Ms Spitz managed to avoid making generalizations. By developing complex and believable characters, such as mixed-race and thus torn between two cultures Emere (Emily) or Laura Lebrun, a sympathetic towards the natives French lady, she took the bias out of the story and made it even more fascinating and meaningful.
‘Island of Shattered Dreams’ is a historical romance, and as befits a book of this genre, even one set against a strongly political backdrop, the language and style simply delight. You cannot get enough of the lyrical tone and the pieces of poetry thrown here and there along with Tahitian words are the most splendid embellishment. The author’s elegant manner is full of ‘Polynesian vibe’; vibe that’s unparalleled and virtually impossible to imitate.
This slim novel is a must-read. It’s one of the most important titles in Pacific Literature; engaging, thought-provoking, and unbelievably beautifully written. For those who want to experience the allure of the South Seas…without the paradise layer.