Summer may have just slipped by, but here are two new historical novels with literary leanings — and island themes — that will keep readers, for a little while longer, in that faraway, vacation state of mind.
By Malia Mattoch McManus
(Self-published, 321 pages, $14.95)
A gothic bodice-ripper with literary overtones set during tumultuous, late-19th-century Hawaii, “Dragonfruit,” by former TV reporter Malia Mattoch McManus, mixes fictional characters with historical personalities.
Eliza Dawson, the novel’s heroine and narrator, is BFFs with Princess Kaiulani; her widower father, William Dawson, is a missionary descendant and close friend of King Kalakaua. A royalist, he tried to stop his fellow sugar planters from forcing the king to sign the Bayonet Constitution, which took away “the voting rights of every Asian and every Hawaiian lacking property or wealth to ensure their own electoral control of the legislature.” He goes on to oppose their overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani.
Driven by the harsh, racist conditions of plantation life and the tragedy of Hawaii’s loss of sovereignty, “Dragonfruit” is reminiscent of “Gone With the Wind,” with epic scenes of violence and fire. Eliza’s indomitable spirit and unapologetic sexuality recall Scarlett O’Hara.
The action opens in 1894: Eliza, on behalf of her father, is smuggling funds to the deposed queen to finance a counterrevolution. From here, the story jumps back and forth in time, with long, elaborate flashbacks that stall the momentum.
Also problematic are stock exotic characters — Eliza’s Chinese-Hawaiian lover, his opium-addicted mother, spoiled sisters and powerful, crafty merchant father — who fascinate Eliza but might bore the reader. Happily, there are more original and lively characters, including Eliza’s villainous first husband.
The plot is irresistible melodrama: Impregnated and abandoned by her lover, the pampered Eliza is married off with a generous dowry to Abram Malveaux, a sugar plantation manager on Molokai, who agrees to raise her child as his own.
On Molokai, Eliza sleeps alone in a rough cabin while Abram sleeps with Hina, his 12-year-old mistress, who is also pregnant. Hina’s brother, Ikaika, an intelligent dreamer, befriends Eliza, who reflects, “Hawaiians speak of the ocean as Americans speak of freedom, yet these children have never known either.”
Sadly, Ikaika first experiences the sea after he contracts leprosy and is exiled to Kalaupapa. “The sound of the ocean is everywhere, and as the patients stare I think of them living under the sea,” Eliza imagines.
Water in all its forms is a constant metaphor in this often lovely book. Missing Kaiulani, who is studying in England and with whom she exchanges letters, Eliza remembers “what it felt like to be twelve years old together, standing in the wet groves of Nuuanu, when her mother insisted we get out of the carriage to pick wild ginger. We stood in the wet and laughed, pulling the thick plants down and snapping off huge heads of white silky blossoms that smelled of spicy liquid mist.”
When Kaiulani returns home from abroad, the two friends swim in a Nuuanu stream, but Eliza observes of the princess, “She looks so alone in the water, so bereft.”
We know from history that Kaiulani is doomed, but while Eliza also faces unspeakable loss, she falls in love again. Ultimately, the reader falls under the spell of this unevenly written yet enthralling tale of heroines who were modern before their time.
Mattoch McManus will sign copies of “Dragonfruit” from 1 to 3 p.m. Oct. 28 at Barnes & Noble Ala Moana, noon to 1 p.m. Dec. 2 at Bookends Kailua, and 11 to noon Dec. 16 at Bishop Museum Shop Pacifica.
“THE CHARM BUYERS”
By Lillian Howan
(University of Hawai‘i Press, 302 pages, $19.99)
Set in Tahiti in the 1990s, this haunting, seductive romance is narrated by Marc Antoine Chen, a disaffected son of the island’s rich Hakka Chinese merchant class. His no-nonsense, sarcastic voice cuts through the lush tropical setting and the overripe emotions and shady intrigues of his large extended clan.
A child of divorce, he was raised in the country by his grandmother, whom he adores. His other fond childhood memories are of living on unpopulated atolls with his father, searching for pearls. An indifferent student, pretty-boy Marc deals pakalolo and, at 17, falls for his academically brilliant cousin Marie-Laure, the only homely girl in the family.
Marc’s Tahiti is a small world where everybody seems to know everybody, but how well? Howan’s characters are complex shape-shifters.
Marie-Laure goes to college in France, and Marc does his military service there, but the two lose touch as she becomes more assimilated to European culture. Back home, Marc has an unhappy affair with an older French artist, Aurore, who is protesting against the nuclear tests her country is conducting in its former colony.
When Marie-Laure returns home ill, on the brink of death, Marc risks everything he has to obtain a magic charm that may save her life.
“A-tai sometimes talked about charms and magical talismans,” he remembered of his grandmother. “The charm was always kept hidden. It had its own will, its secretive desire.”
When disaster ensues, Marc goes into exile in the van-tui, the remote, “faraway islands,” where he is comforted by the brightness and clarity of the stars and by “the solitary mountains, the flat slivers of sand, the places you wouldn’t find unless you were really lost.”
Marc finds his true self in the course of this understated, beautiful novel by Howan, a California attorney who spent her childhood in Tahiti.