‘A Pattern of Islands’ is a memoir written by Sir Arthur Grimble. It recounts his time in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, where he served as a British colonial officer for nearly 20 years.
In 1913, a 25-year-old Arthur Grimble gets nominated to a cadetship in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate. Being the only candidate, he accepts the post and soon after that leaves cold Britain for the heat of the Pacific Islands.
The little country welcomes Arthur and his wife Olivia with its kind-hearted inhabitants and a significantly different culture, to which the young officer must quickly adapt. Having the natives as his teachers, Arthur masters the Gilbertese language, gets to know the local customs and traditions, and discovers what it’s like to live at the end of the world. With each passing day he grows fonder of the place and the good-natured people he has a privilege to meet. And he realizes that his is the honour, not theirs.
I’ve been wondering for a while now, why are memoirs written by colonial administrators so unbelievably engaging? Is that because they transport you to exotic places? Or maybe the reason lies in the fact that they take you back in time? It’s probably both, right? Well, this particular title is no exception. Let me tell you right off the bat: this is such an interesting piece of work! First of all, Kiribati is the most fascinating topic. Could anyone write a bad book about this country? I highly doubt it. And second, Sir Arthur Grimble was a very talented writer, whose innate gift for telling stories in a poetic and descriptive way simply cannot be denied. That’s exactly what I call a perfect mix; a perfect mix of substance and style.
Although the book is a classic memoir, the author doesn’t focus solely on his experiences. In fact, he treats them as a sort of background to his descriptions of Kiribati, its inhabitants and their culture. And you should know that those descriptions are second to none. From the scenery to legends, rituals, and beliefs to people’s everyday lives, you can picture it all. It is quite astonishing what a careful observer Arthur Grimble was; and surprisingly unbiased one at that! You can really sense his genuine admiration and utmost respect for the Islanders. He came to Kiribati representing the great British Empire, but he didn’t even try to impose his ways of being on the locals. He chose to learn theirs instead. How rare is that? Don’t we all love to judge and criticize other cultures just because they are not similar to ours?
Now, apart from being an excellent study of the Gilbertese culture, the book is also an engrossing portrayal of colonial administration. The author doesn’t hide his support for colonialism, which only adds plausibility to the whole story. Bygone times are vivid in all their glory on every single page. So if you have ever dreamt of a time machine, or if you have ever been curious what it was like to work for the British Colonial Office, this definitely is a book for you.
Sir Arthur Grimble had a delightful way with words, so his memoir reads like a charm. Some may say the pace is a little too slow, but the narrative is so compelling that this really isn’t a bother. Plus, the author’s wonderful sense of humour and slightly self-deprecating manner make up for any minor drawbacks you may find. Personally, I couldn’t put this book down. But as they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison!
Would I recommend ‘A Pattern of Islands’? Wholeheartedly. For whom would I recommend it? For those interested in Kiribati, or Pasifika in general. For those intrigued by history. For those wishing to immerse themselves in a literary masterpiece. Because this is one hell of a good read. Insightful, thought-provoking, and thoroughly captivating.