Book review: Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore

Moore brings a novelist’s eye to her fascinating history of Hawaii, a place of unexpected entanglements between colonialists and islanders

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 11:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 12:40pm

“The task of understanding the past is never-ending,” Susanna Moore observes late in Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii, her fascinating account of the “short 120 years from the arrival of Captain Cook in 1777 to the annexation of the Islands in 1898 by the United States”. Such a point of view  belongs as much to the novelist as to the historian.

 Moore is best known for her fiction. Author of seven novels, including In the Cut  and The Whiteness of Bones,  she  explores  how women must find a place for themselves in a world where history conspires against them and identity is a shifting sea of codes.

Small wonder, then, that she would bring an equivalent perspective to Hawaii, where she grew up and about which she has written two non-fiction books, I Myself Have Seen It  and Light Years.  For Moore, Hawaii is where it all begins (it permeates her fiction, too), a template of fantasy and hard truths, opportunities lost and found. As she writes: “It will be the obvious view of most readers that the Hawaiians should have been left to work out their own history.” Moore is referring to colonialism, which has defined the history of the islands in many ways. Wisely, she keeps her focus largely on the 19th century; she is less interested in what Hawaii is than how it got that way.

Such a process was far more complicit than we might expect, as Hawaiian kings and chieftains cut deals with European and American traders, looking for advantage and protection, and even sought out contact on their own. In 1824,  King Liholiho  died in London, where he had gone “to visit King George IV of England to seek advice as to the best form of government for the Islands”, and that’s just one example; the early history of Hawaii is rife with unanticipated entanglements and complexities.

Just consider Cook, who despite “having exhausted the Hawaiians’ food reserves, as well as their goodwill”, was, in Moore’s telling, killed less in retribution than  in a stunning accident. For this reason, she suggests, his successor Charles Clerke  “did not seek vengeance. He understood that there had been no plot or even desire to kill Cook, and thought that the Hawaiians, surprised and frightened, regretted Cook’s death.”

In Moore’s view, that’s a significant moment. Throughout Paradise of the Pacific, she highlights just these sorts of interactions, using her novelist’s eye to zero in on the ways boundaries get blurred and distinctions collapse. At the heart of this is a sly and vivid feminism that emerges particularly in her portraits of the powerful Queen Ka’ahumanu  and the missionary Lucy Thurston.

The power of Paradise of the Pacific, then – as well as its bitter beauty – resides in Moore’s ability to lay out this progression as a set of turning points, inevitable from the standpoint of the present, but in their own time more a matter of human ambition and fallibility.

Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Los Angeles Times