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June 15, 2016

Epic and engrossing, despite the fact that I only picked it up to study Mitchener’s style and approach to his subject.

It is old-school, heavy going in many places. This is the opening line of the second paragraph:

Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth, whipping the waters into towering waves that crashed down upon the world’s seacoasts, tearing away rocks and eroding the land.

Shades of Genesis.

In the first chapter, 17 pages, there is no direct speech, there are no characters apart from the unidentified narrator, and the plot events are geologic or climatic. The time spans ‘millions and millions of years’ but, despite that, it is intense. 

Mitchener tells stories well. The verisimilitude of his characters, plot events and settings had me convinced they must have been drawn closely from the factual. His style might feel dated now, but it had me reading whenever I had a spare few minutes. So I disagree with some reviewers that some of the major characters are one-dimensional.

Mitchener used many techniques to build the believability of his characters and their situations: newspaper articles and correspondence passed down through the generations, the Harvard student’s thesis into the sex lives of his forebears aboard the tiny ship out to Hawaii, and mythologies and genealogies transcribed by an objectionable, arrogant minister and curated in mainland American universities, for instance.

At 1,130 pages, in this edition, it is a lengthy read for a relatively short, human history. ‘Unflinching’ is a word I would use to describe the gaze of the writer into this history. Reading reviews clarified that for me: Mitchener lived in Hawaii for some years with his non-Caucasian wife, suffering unrelenting racism. The book explains how Hawaii came to be the way it was when Mitchener wrote of it and, despite the intensity of his feelings, the portrayal is complex, shot through with swirling light and darkness.

All the same, there is subtle satire in the minister, outraged at the traditional incest in the royal family, having descendents who intermarry so closely that every family has a deranged woman (never a man!) roaming the vast mansions.

There is so much sadness in the colonization stories.

I suspect there always is.