L’Île des rêves écrasés (The Island of Shattered Dreams), Chantal Spitz, 1991
- French Polynesia, #2
- Epub, French edition, €11.50 from fnac.com
- Read: August 2015
- Rating: 3/5
- Recommended for: those who have fallen in love across enemy lines
It seems appropriate that today would be the day I review Chantal Spitz’s L’Île des rêves écrasés (published in English as The Island of Shattered Dreams), a novel about doomed love set against the backdrop of French colonialism and nuclear testing. Happy Valentine’s Day!
In 1966, France began testing nuclear weapons in remote regions of French Polynesia. Testing continued for thirty years, despite increasing local and international protest, raining radioactive fallout over the South Pacific and causing untold ecological destruction. Chantal Spitz’s unrelentingly grim novel charts the establishment of the French nuclear testing center, and the colonial history leading up to it, through an intergenerational series of love stories between Maohi, mixed-race, and European characters. It’s an original idea that unfortunately falls a little bit flat in the execution.
Spitz’s anger at the colonial legacy is clear, and the exposé of unjust land-grabbing, the establishment of a race-based social hierarchy (and the psychological damage it inflicts), and especially the outrageous violation of the nuclear tests performed in a pristine natural setting, with total disregard for the civilization that has inhabited that setting for centuries, are very well-delineated and emotion-provoking. The problem is that Spitz’s love story exists primarily to convey the political message, and fails to be interesting in its own right.
The story centers on three relationships–that of Toofa, a Maohi woman who falls in love with a French plantation owner in the 19th century; their daughter Emere/Emily, who struggles with her mixed-race status until she falls in love with Tematua, a man raised in full appreciation of his Maohi heritage; and Emere and Tematua’s son, Terii, an anti-colonial activist who embarks on an affair with Laura, a French nuclear scientist. It should be an interesting exploration of the intersection of race, love, and power. There’s some cool stuff going on with the dialogue, wherein the Maohi characters speak in verse when especially moved, which is both lyrical and a direct allusion to the Polynesian oral tradition. But the central love affairs are wooden and overblown. Love is eternal, in Spitz’s book; an unhappy ending means that both parties pine forever (we are only given one example of a happy ending, that of Emere and Tematua, who live in complete harmony and isolated bliss for all of their days…something that seems to me equally unrealistic). Maybe I, being eternally unromantic and exceedingly skeptical (much to my husband’s dismay), was just the wrong audience for this work, but to me the series of love stories start to feel unconvincing and repetitive very early on.
Worse, it’s all tell, don’t show. Spitz exposits how her characters are feeling, of their love for one another, of the historical events that give their affairs context. We don’t really witness people falling in love or navigating their relationships with each other. It’s not a story that you can sink your teeth into; the few interactions that we actually see between the characters are fairly bloodless. Laura and Terii know their love is doomed from the beginning; she will go back to France when her contract with the nuclear center is over, and he will remain in Tahiti and agitate against the nuclear testing. She represents everything he is fighting against and yet his feelings for her are entirely unconflicted, and their relationship runs smoothly but sadly until she goes home. There are no surprises. In the end, it’s kind of a boring read,* which is too bad. The politics are revolutionary and stirring, but the story doesn’t serve them quite well enough.
* In fairness, I should qualify that sentiment by saying that I read it in French, which slows me down a good deal. Possibly if you read it in your native language it would go quickly enough to keep you entertained.