How to describe Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam? It is a tale of the 1950s set on a Pacific island where the author authentically creates the sweltering heat, the humidity, the tropical jungle and the natives. It is a claustrophobic tale of differing religious beliefs where confusion, conviction and malaria bring about an unexpected ending. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, it was a wild card choice and I really enjoyed it.
Bea and Max Hanlon arrive on Advent Island in the remote New Hebrides as Max takes up his post as island missionary to spread the word to the heathen natives. It is not what they expected. Bea is soon picking rat droppings from their bag of rice while Max deals with a lack of clocks making scheduling a morning service difficult. Not to mention the group praying and singing at night, this ‘dark praying’ is intended to expel dark spirits and is done outside the Mission House whilst Max and Bea attempt to sleep. The authorial tone is at first fond and humorous as Bea and Max face up to their difficulties shackled by language differences and the late arrival of their trunks. They are literally thrown in at the deep end. Bea negotiates the many taboos and starts a kitchen garden. I particularly enjoyed the description of one mysterious vegetable as ‘hedge’. But their house is their own, until the previous missionary reappears unannounced. The always-humming Marietta cannot take a hint and tramps around as if she owns the place. She is the grit on which the story takes a dark and threatening turn.
Two small criticisms. There are so many peripheral characters with island names that I ceased to remember who was who. And at times the island dominated character and plot.
If you are looking for a novel in which to lose yourself, this is it. An atmospheric, spooky and at times downright yucky tale of how religion can turn quickly into fanaticism. It is about a fight for survival in a world which starts off as a dream and ends as a nightmare. I enjoyed Bea’s journey as she adapts to her new world, makes the best of things, makes friends, ignores the silliest taboos and gets herself into trouble.
In the jungle, is it the fittest that survive or the cleverest? A highly imaginative debut.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL by @anbara_salam #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3qL via @SandraDanby