The tale of diffident but competent William Hardt and his experience bringing compensation to an Island nation for the horrors they have suffered during life as a US Army base/battleground. Hardts’s quest to find those islanders injured by land mines and the victim of an unspeakable rape, leads him into contact with the customs and cultures of a world hitherto foreign to him.
Harding does, I think, a good job of creating a complete and well established island nation here. Although they are a fictional people, he has clearly researched thoroughly and has an informed viewpoint from which he has built his setting and his characters. Their belief system and customs are thoroughly fleshed out and accessible. They are treated with respect and it is apparent that Harding honours and understands the customs of other island peoples.
I enjoyed reading this novel whilst holidaying and had no trouble immersing myself in it. I have read of some commentators indifference to Harding’s scatological bent, and perhaps it’s because this is the first of his novels I’ve read, it didn’t bother me. The obsession with toileting doesn’t really seem too out of place when you consider the protagonist is a man who suffers OCD and living in a developing society. Having had some close run ins with public toilets myself, I mostly sympathised.
The more pertinent considerations involve the novels central theme – the relationship between an Indigenous people and the colonising (or invading) other. Harding does a good job of emphasising that attitudes of cultural superiority which ignore the true needs of one group (the islanders) despite the good intentions of the others (in this case American) are tragically destructive and he mourns the loss of Indigenous culture appropriately.
The downturn of the islanders society is measured in contrast to the destruction wrought on the US in the September 11 tragedy: William discovers the ‘help’ he so fervently assisted on providing has been the catalyst for both a crisis of cultural identity and public health as his own nation is reeling from the attack on the twin towers. The point is apt, and paralleling the two a nifty device, but overall the point is somewhat laboured. I’m always sceptical of any moral lesson that the author feels they haven’t written strongly enough about and so has their protagonist speak or think the epiphany, as happens here.
The idea of remorse and regret is interesting, and we are left in no doubt about the place of both by the end of the story, but I would have liked for there to be more accountability for individual actions. It doesn’t really sit well with me that our protagonist gets pretty much what he wants the whole time, realises what an awful thing he’s contributed to (despite his good intentions) and then still gets pretty much everything he wants. But then, in the face of Western colonisation of various lands the world over, I suppose this is pretty much how it works, and that is something we should all be thinking about and striving to rectify. Harding is effective in exploring the issues, but seems somewhat mute on future action, but it is, after all, one big damn puzzler and a story such as this, which is effective in promoting discussion, awareness and above all, empathy, is essential in taking steps towards the ultimate goal.