Review of Yaron Glazer (Panama 1997-99) Islands of Shadow, Islands of Light

Jack Niedenthal is the Trust Liaison for the People of Bikini Atoll.  He has lived in the Marshall Islands for almost 30 years.  His wife is a Bikinian islander, they have 5 children and one grandchild.  He is the author of one book, For the Good of Mankind:  An Oral History of the People of Bikini Atoll and their Islands, and is the director/writer/producer of 2 full-length feature films in the Marshallese language, Ña Noniep and Yokwe Bartowe.

 Jack Niedenthal (Marshall Island 1981-84)

When an ex-Peace Corps Volunteer sets out to write a novel based on his or her Third World experiences they are faced with some perplexing artistic and humanistic challenges:  How does one describe a tremendously unique series of events from ones own life so that others might participate in those feelings and understand those encounters, and moreover, translate, interpret, and describe a strangely foreign culture well enough to be digested and understood by a reader? As any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you, even two people living in the same village at the same time can have enormously dissimilar experiences.  In his debut novel set in Panama, Islands of Shadow, Islands of Light, author Yaron Glazer skillfully overcomes these obstacles. 

Glazer effectively bounces us around in time between 1969 and 2007 as we follow the lead character Jessica Talbot, a former Peace Corps volunteer, as she revisits her country of service to try to investigate the brutal quelling of a riot in the La Joya prison.  While in country, she also attempts to cope with the loss of a boyfriend who disappeared during the American invasion.  I feel compelled to mention that the character of Jessica was portrayed with such emotional depth that as I read the story I just assumed the author of this book was female.  It wasn’t until I did a Google search after I finished the book that I learned otherwise. 

I especially enjoyed reading of the adventures of Jessica with her host Panamanian family. After she is accused of sleeping with the host family father, she moves out of the house.  The passage describing the transportation of her worldly possessions via the use of an old horse to her new accommodations was excellent and convincing.  In this particular section of the book the author skillfully contrasts the strife of host-family life with the compassion and love that is developed between Jessica and some of her students and other locals. 

Glazer’s writing mechanics, language skills and story telling abilities are outstanding.  I had a hard time putting this book down, and that says a lot because at this time in my life, having lived on a small Pacific island for 30 years, I have become a pernickety reader:  If the fiction I’m reading does not effectively provide enough detail to suspend my belief systems, I am quick to toss a novel aside and move on.  I loved the exquisite details of life on the prison island; the mosquitoes, the heat, the food, the close comradeship and conversely the fierce hatred between the various prison personalities-guards and prisoners alike–as they try to cope with living in intense, almost unimaginable isolation. 

The prisoner we follow throughout the book, Castillo, who is on the island because he was falsely accused of murdering his wife, at one point gets tied to a tree for days for insulting one of the guards when he asked for more food. He describes being overwhelmed by mosquitoes:  “On the third night the full moon rose, and it was if a humming cloud had descended upon him through a window to God.  Elsewhere around camp, pigs wallowed in mud to coat their hides and prisoners covered their skin in urine-soaked cloth and burned dry dung in coffee tins.  Only Castillo remained exposed.”

Ultimately the best compliment I can give Mr. Glazer is that I now feel that I have lived through a portion of Panama’s troubled history; indeed, I now have an idea of what it was like to dwell there as a foreigner among all the uncertainty, chaos and corruption of the time.  This book was a great adventure.

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