Sunday, December 13, 2009

Honolulu, by Alan Brennert

This is for the Historical Tapestry challenge - letter B.

I grabbed this book in a five-minute panic at the library, and I'm grateful I didn't have any more time to peruse the shelves. The cover to this book turned me off - it looks like an Asian sexual fetish story - but because I couldn't find another historical fiction book written by a Mr. or Ms. B_, Honolulu won by default. Now that I've met Jin, learned about her homeland in Korea and her efforts to make a life in early 20th century Hawai'i, I'm definitely glad I was in such a rush.

Jin starts off life as a young girl named Regret, for her parents' feelings upon welcoming her to the world. She has greater ambitions than Confucian Korea smiles upon, and so she strong-arms her way into some luck and adventure. That takes her, as a "picture bride," to Hawai'i, where she meets the man who selected her picture from the pile. It's hardly love at first sight, but Jin ("Gem," as she now calls herself) vows to make the best of it.

The book follows Jin's life in Hawai'i, as she and the young society there work to make their ways. Jin watches, close but on the sidelines, as Honolulu struggles to come to terms with its racially-mixed identity, and she shares with the reader her own struggles.

The writing is often lovely, with evocative sentences like, "Her hair was mostly white, with a few strands of black threading through it like old memories." The prose occasionally wanders into purple, stretching the credibility of a first-person narrator who has had little education (though she treasured what she found) and speaks English as a second language. But, we can ignore these excesses for a tender and moving story.

My largest gripe with the book is the narrator's insistence on spelling out Korean and Hawaiian traditions to the reader, introducing expository paragraphs that break up the narrative. There are more graceful ways to explain habits or cultures foreign to the reader, and it reminded me too much of the author behind the curtain. Fortunately, these fade away as we get to know Jin and, in the end, her story and lovely personality make for a memorable, enjoyable read.


Rowenna said...

You're right about that cover--I never would have chosen this without your description of the lovely story! Sometimes it makes me wonder what the designer was thinking :) Thanks for introducing me to a book I would have passed up!

Marg said...

This is another book that I have wanted to read forever! I own the author's next book. Somehow I just need to fit them into the reading schedule.

Sarah said...

Thanks for the writeup! I haven't gotten to this novel yet but bought it based on my impression of his previous novel, Moloka'i, which I can't recommend highly enough. It's a book to get lost in, and I wouldn't have minded its being 400 pages longer.

Laughing Stars said...

This looks very interesting, especially since I know virtually nothing about these cultures. It's a shame the author is so intrusive. :-)

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