Review of Food of Ghosts by Marita Rose of The Little Island That Could (November 24, 2013)
A fictional crime novel set on Kiribati’ main island, Tarawa? I could’ve swam to the islands and back with all my excitement. Whilst I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to put it out there that such a novel has ever been written – if there has, well I certainly haven’t been told about it.
Anyone who reads a novel that is set in a place that one finds familiar, will know the feeling of reading of descriptions of towns, people and cultures. It’s heartwarming, exciting and the best thing that I found – especially with this novel – is that it gives you an entirely new perspective on everything that you may have taken for granted.
Opening with a bus ride from the main town of Betio to the Ambo lodge about 15 kms down the road, Kiribati life is so easily recognizable to a local reader and so exotic to those who have never heard of the tiny island; ‘Wild and furious on the ocean side and calm and placid on the protected, inner lagoon side, the Pacific surrounded the elongated ‘L’ shaped, narrow strip of land that was Tarawa’. From this small description we instantly realize that whilst the surrounding sea indicate a sense of space and open horizons, the strip of land holds a country full of gossip, curious onlookers and interconnected families that will provide more of a hinderance than a help to Louisa, our detective protagonist.
Typical of Kiribati storytelling, one story leads onto another and a maze of rumours, a series of ‘he said, she said’ and family politics give in what is actually the ‘truth’ of the mystery. To begin with, the story seems to center around mainly expatriates and their frustration for living on the island is relatable – to any reader. I assume that Scottish author Wheelaghan’s description is based on her own experience from living in Kiribati for five years and I welcomed the accurate description of island life. While Kiribati certainly looks like paradise to an onlooker, life on the island is slow, without much electricity and incredibly hot and humid. What seems to be a simple case of international workers seemingly having a pub brawl turns into a murder case filled with island folklore and locals watching every one of Louisa’s investigative steps. It is only a matter of time that Louisa is taken on many a path by locals wanting her to become involved in their own affairs and the reader feels Louisa’s confusion with her. Many locals offer their help with the case but frustratingly take her on long-winded explanations and stories that seem to have no end nor have any relation to the case she’s keen to get to the bottom of.
Louisa isn’t keen to admit that she is in fact half I-Kiribati and in many ways she is a stranger to the country. There are many traditions and customs that she questions or is completely ignorant to which as a half I-Kiribati person myself, I am appalled that she hasn’t learnt even the simplest customs of her people. Reassuringly, Louisa’s local relatives mirror this response of mine. Her cousin – who has set up camp to live with her – looks over her with almost too close an eye and shows her disapproval when Louisa refuses to attend a family funeral and pay respects to other family members. It is through Louisa’s confusion of customs that allows readers to experience the culture shock and Wheelaghan balances the confusion of both sides with a realistic and easy read appeal.
Without going into too much detail, the mystery gradually speeds up leading the reader to keep guessing which character actually has valuable and dependable information. Louisa is a complex character who if anything, is as much of a mystery than the case she is solving. She has her own reasons for living in Kiribati and leaving her Scottish homeland and you sympathise with her struggle for wanting to solve the case whilst being looked negatively as a woman trying to do a mans job.
Food of Ghosts is an intriguing read. I can imagine that Wheelaghan could have easily gone down the route of depicting Kiribati as an island paradise – this most certainly would have been the easiest option. However, she handles the balance between tropical lifestyle and the struggle of daily life in the middle of the Pacific with careful respect, great detail and real knowledge of the setting. It is this feature that makes Food of Ghosts standout. Kiribati has not had a fictional novel that reaches out to such a broad audience and yet explains local life to such detail. Fingers crossed that Wheeleghan writes more novels set on Kiribati – it would be such a shame to leave it at one!