Reilly Ridgell is the author of the textbook Pacific Nations and Territories that has been in print continuously since 1983, and its elementary level version, Pacific Neighbors. He has also written Bending to the Trade Winds: Stories of the Peace Corps Experience in Micronesia, and has just released his first novel, Green Pearl Odyssey. He is currently a dean at Guam Community College. Here Reilly reviews Jeff Bronow’s Torn in the South Pacific.
Torn in the South Pacific
by Jeff Bronow (Fiji 1988–90)
Reviewed by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971-73)
I’M A SUCKER for books set in the tropical Pacific. I’ve read most from Melville to Stevenson, to London, to Maugham, to Burdick, to Frisbie, to Nordhoff, to Hall, to Michener, to Becke, to Stoddard, to Osbourne, to Russell, to Grimble — all making their best effort to explain, through their European or American eyes, what it’s like on Pacific islands. Peace Corps has been the great facilitator here, depositing Volunteers in exotic (to us) locations that only fuel the writers’ fire most of us carry. So it is with Jeff Bronow, who had the fortune to find himself living in Fiji shortly after the Pacific’s first military coup d’etat, a bloodless 1987 event that was spawned by British colonial policies dating back more than a century. Bronow has used his experiences to give us his first novel, Torn in the South Pacific, that follows a recently arrived Peace Corps Volunteer John (we never learn his last name), as he struggles with his new environment, tries to comprehend the conflict between Indians and Fijians, and tries to find himself spiritually at the same time.
Bronow does a good job of explaining the conflict between Fiji’s two major ethnic groups: the indigenous Fijians, proud descendants of the original people who settled Fiji 3,000 years ago, and the Indians, descendants of indentured workers brought in by the British to work the cane fields. By 1987 the Indians outnumbered the Fijians and took control of the government, prompting the coup by the Fijian army which was comprised almost entirely of Fijians. John experiences this conflict at the grass roots level, a good mechanism for the writer to explore the issues involved. He’s a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching at a predominantly Indian high school. Like a Volunteers, he’s supposed to stay neutral on political issues, and he wants to experience both cultures, Indian and Fijian.
There is some good writing here. Bronow does a nice job describing John’s environment and the everyday life he experiences. As a reader, I want to be pulled in and placed in the setting, especially if it’s someplace like Fiji. Bronow does that. His story, slow at first, takes off about half way through with some excellent scenes in a Fijian village, and others featuring the crossing of rain swollen rivers. The final conflict scene is well done also, though Bronow could have mentioned that fire walking is also done by Fijians.
But there are some major concerns and drawbacks to this novel. As mentioned before, it starts slowly, and the opening two chapters are a bit cumbersome. They don’t really grab the reader and that can be the kiss of death for a book. Bronow insists on giving us detailed descriptions of mundane activities that don’t really contribute to the story. Such descriptions are interesting and help the reader appreciate the life style, but they are overdone. The author doesn’t need to recount every conversation had with the neighborhood children every time they bring him some food. The spiritual, religious, and philosophical discussions get a bit ponderous at times, and his psychedelic dreams seem contrived.
The main character has this overpowering spiritual hunger, but we never know why. All we know is that he is from LA — which may explain it. There is nothing about his family back home, nothing about any girlfriend left behind, no explanation of why he joined the Peace Corps, almost nothing about his training and nothing about his interaction with other Volunteers and Peace Corps officials. We don’t know if in training he studied Fijian or Hindi and though he knows simple phrases in each, he appears to be making no concerted effort to learn either language. John has long discussions with an expatriate friend who keeps talking about getting back to God, and he spends time reading the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, but we never really know what his religious beliefs are. Bronow ends the book with a long spiritual discourse and some Bible passages, but I missed whatever point he was trying to make.
Then there are other annoyances. The publisher, Publish America, prints a disclaimer right in the front of the book saying, essentially, that they did no editing. This is a major red flag and says a lot about the publisher and the author. All of us writers need editors, need fresh eyes to see things we can’t because we’ve looked at our manuscript a thousand times. Now I must say the typos aren’t too bad. I ran into only about ten or so. But there is some awkward and repetitive word usage, there’s the aforementioned excessive detail in some scenes, Fijian and Hindi words are not italicized and sometimes not explained, we sometimes don’t know if the person he’s talking to is Fijian or Indian, his new found girlfriend’s hair goes from black to brown to black again, and he drinks lots of yaqona (kava) but doesn’t really describe the effects. Many of these things would have been caught in a good edit. A good edit would have also trimmed the story down a bit and made it move much faster, especially in the first half of the novel. I also think it could use a better title and, good grief, what’s with the cover? This is the South Pacific! Put some palm trees and beaches or some breathtaking scenery from Fiji. Please.
That being said, if you want a good look at the Peace Corps experience in Fiji set against the backdrop of the conflict that, 20 plus years later, is still not resolved, then you will find Torn in the South Pacific a very interesting read.