I’m back briefly in Oceania, finishing up my tour of the region for my six books, six countries, six continent/region tour. I love this aspect of my quest for 52 countries in a year, because it ensures that I don’t just take the easy way out and read my way through North America, Europe and a few other first world nations. This is my second year tackling the task of finding literature from such a diversity of places, and Oceania is always the biggest challenge. After a book from Australia and a book from New Zealand, one has to be a little adventurous in seeking out the books from the small island nations that make up the rest of Oceania. You may recall my little crisis earlier in the year when I discovered that a book that I thought would be number 6 for Oceania, ended up being across a border and technically part of Asia instead. Fortunately, a friend on Goodreads reminded me that she had a Samoa title to mail to me. When it first arrived, I was still trying to map a rational route through the world, so I put this one off. Since then I have given up on my route being rational, and so I hopped on over to Samoa from Canada today. At this point I’m trying to catch up on my reading goals for this quarter after that long lapse at the start of good weather and baseball season, and I’m plowing through anything skinny that fits those goals between now and the end of June. Big books will return in July (unless I’m reading them for a group read before then). So here is my final Oceania read for 2012. Check back in 2013 for more obscure island reads, because I doubt I will be able to resist the challenge of the 666 task, despite its increasing difficulty as I check off books from my list of viable options.
Where We Once Belonged is the tale of a Samoan girl coming of age in her small town. It is a story of family, of community mores, of gender politics, of island life. The book weaves Samoan language into the English narrative. In the back of the book there is a dictionary that translates some of the words, but by no means all. As a non-Samoan speaker, I found this both helpful–I loved to hear the music of the language and the ways that English morphed into new Samoan vocabulary in the mouths of islanders–and annoying–there were interactions, songs and poems that I couldn’t translate, and these left me feeling I was missing out. The book is laid out in a series of long and short vignettes. At times island legends are woven into the narrative. There is not much plot to follow, and yet there is certainly development in the main character’s understanding of herself and her setting. My three star rating may be a little harsh. This novel’s rating probably suffers some, coming on the heels of some truly exceptional books I’ve just read. Literature from this region is hard to come by, and this book gives a nice view of Samoan life in the late 20th century. It has much more literary substance than most pop fiction, but doesn’t rise to the level of a literary masterpiece.