By Célestine Hitiura Vaite
Published by Back Bay Books
February 7 2006
Price: $12.95 trade paperback
Amazon.com price: $9.97Frangipani
, set in Tahiti, is billed as a novel that portrays a mother-daughter relationship, but it’s more than that, much more. The story begins with Materena Mahi’s husband, Pito, leaving her and their infant son, Tamatoa, over an argument because she picked up Pito’s paycheck.
Materena doesn’t tell Pito she’s pregnant before he leaves. Instead she makes plans to move furniture, fix the house the way she wants it, and gets a job as a professional cleaner so she doesn’t need to worry about how she’ll provide for her children.
Vaite doesn’t waste words with showing us Tahitian landscape, details of the town Faa’a, or descriptions of characters. Once you get drawn into Vaite’s humorous style of writing, you’ll find yourself conjuring your own images to go with the many characters (relatives) in the book. The characters speak breathlessly, literally, and the narrative voice is filled with morsels of Tahitian life.
For almost the length of the pregnancy, Vaite has Materena speaking to the newly conceived daughter in her womb.
And as she continues the baby’s guided tour, Materena sees her place with new eyes herself. Faa’a PK 5 – behind a petrol station, not far from the Chinese store, the church, the cemetery, and the international airport. It is mismatched painted fibro shacks, church bells calling out the faithful on Sunday morning, the endless narrow paths leading to relatives, quilts adorning walls, diaper cloths drying on clotheslines, and someone in the neighborhood raking brown leaves.
Here is also women talking stories by the side of the road, barefoot children chasing chickens or flying kites, babies falling asleep at their mother’s breast, men gathered outside the Chinese store counting the few cars driving past. (12)
It isn’t until chapter six, we’re introduced to Leilani through the “rules about giving birth.”
Materena takes a deep breath, trying to distract herself by remembering all the traditional Tahitian rules about giving birth.
First rule: no shouting as you push the baby into the world, because when you shout the baby inside gets frightened, and it’s not wise to be born frightened. It’s enough that one second the baby is in his mama’s belly and it’s dark and comfortable and warm, and next minute he’s in this strange place he doesn’t know. And the light is hurting his eyes, he can’t breathe, and it’s cold.
Second rule: no crying out loud as you push the baby into the word, because when you cry out loud, the baby about to be born gets all sad, and it’s not wise to be born sad. The baby is going to be a crying-for-no-reason person. And when you’re a crying-for-no-reason person and you’re a woman, life is just going to be one misery after the next. One little pain, and that’s it, you’ll cry your eyes out. It’s much better for you to be a woman who cries only for big pains.
Third rule: no cursing and screaming words of insult as you push your baby into the world, because when you curse and scream words of insult, the baby inside gets all cranky, and it’s not wise to be cranky. That baby is going to be a cranky-for-no-reason person. (44-45)
Then we meet the daughter.
The everyday day life Tahitian-style begins with the Welcome into the World rituals. So here is Materena, accompanied by her mother, introducing bébé Leilani to her relatives, and everyone has something gentil to say about Loana’s granddaughter, who came into the world upside down. . . . Then it’s off to the cemetery to introduce the little one to the dead. (49-50)
Baby Leilani jumps from the labor room at the hospital to age 12 where she is reading encyclopedias and we find out in this 12-year jump, Materena has had another child, a boy, Moana, Leilani’s younger brother. Materena, best listener in Tahiti, digs deep into her pocketbook to pay for the encyclopedias, that will hopefully answer Leilani’s complicated questions that Materena can’t keep up with and is tired of listening to.
Leilani used to say how clever her mother was, but these days Leilani doesn’t say this anymore. So, why doesn’t it snow in Tahiti? How would Materena know this? “Girl,” she sighs, “I don’t know why it doesn’t snow in Tahiti.”Fragipani
“Ah . . . I knew you wouldn’t.”
“Why did you ask me, then, if you knew I didn’t know?” asks Materena, a bit cranky.
“I just hoped you knew.”
“Well, stop hoping. Ask me about the ancestors, the old days, cleaning tricks, budgeting, who’s who in the family album and at the cemetery, plants, words of wisdom Tahitian-style, traditions. Don’t ask me why it doesn’t snow in Tahiti. Ask your teacher.” (53)
is truly about the everyday lifestyle, traditions, and tales of Tahiti, with a bit of mother-daughter flavor added.
Vaite deluges the reader with humorous blends of all of these into a quaint tale, which gently pokes fun at Tahitian life, the breathless chatter between women, and the crankiness of the people.
In the “Secrets for the Grave” chapter Materena says:
There are secrets which can never be told. They are called secrets of the grave. And there are secrets that can be told one day, it’s just a question of waiting for the right moment. They are called secrets, pure and simple. (94)
. . . But first Materena would like her daughter to promise that she won’t get cranky, because it’s quite a big secret. Leilani puts a hand up and promises that she won’t get cranky. So Materena tells her daughter about that pink bicycle Mama Roti had given her for her seventh birthday. (96)
After a recapitulation about how Materena told Leilani that somebody had stolen her bicycle, Leilani doesn’t get cranky because she’d known for years that her bicycle hadn’t been stolen. Just as she’d known that many of the Tahitian tales and traditions weren’t true.
Materena wants the best for Leilani but finds that she can’t say anything to her daughter without Leilani making her feel stupid.
When Materena complains of her hands being so used up because of all the cleaning they do, and dares tell Her Highness that she wouldn’t mind another job because cleaning is so lonely sometimes, Her Highness says, “Get another job. Don’t just complain about it. Make a change. Take control of your life!”
. . . Ah, what misery when your daughter thinks she knows better than you do. You’re always on the defensive, on edge, and you can’t relax. The problem with Leilani, so Materena analyzes, is that she’s too much like her father. She’s not diplomatic at all. (133)
Yes, the mother-daughter ups and downs, and even some of the family life, can lead the reader to chuckle. But the number of stories within the story could have been individual novels.
Materena has rules as well for her son, Tamatoa, before he leaves Tahiti for the military in France. There are “rules that must be followed when you are on foreign soil and your family is on the other side of the planet.”
First rule: no fighting with the locals, you don’t want to upset the wrong family. What if it’s the Mafia? And plus, it’s not nice to fight.
Second rule: no rendezvous in a girl’s bedroom, even if she tells you that her parents are fine with her having boys in their house. It’s more likely that the girl’s parents don’t know anything about it, and all you’re going to get is a gun pointed at your head, a thick piece of wood smashed across your back, or something equally horrible.
Third rule: never arrive with empty hands at a dinner even if your friend told you that his mother hates it when guests arrive with something. The reality is that hosts love surprises, and it doesn’t have to be something to eat. Flowers are great. Perfumed soaps too. Show your gratitude for the invitation. The only people hosts never expect anything from, over and over again, are the relatives.
Fourth rule (still about being a guest at dinner): leave a bit of food on your plate to show the host you’re too full to have another serving. If there’s nothing left on your plate and the host can’t serve you more food because there’s no more food in the cooking pot, she’s going t be very embarrassed. She’s going to assume you’re still hungry. Eat the food even if you don’t like the taste of it, you don’t know what it is, you’ve never eaten such a dish in your whole life and it looks bizarre.
“Don’t you make anyone think I’ve been a bad mother to you,” Materena says, “that I didn’t raise you proper.” (172-173)
This last sentence is what Frangipani
is truly about—Materena’s married life and her sacrifices to fulfill her quest to raise her children to the best of her ability. When Materena turns 40 she decides to quit her professional cleaning job and begin a talk-back radio show aimed at women. Who better to host the show than the best listener in Tahiti? Yet, Materena thinks her daughter hasn’t listened to her.
It isn’t until she hears Leilani’s announcement for her own life’s plans that Materena realizes her daughter has listened to everything she’s told her.
”Mamie, I don’t want to be forty like you and realize I should have done what I wanted a long time ago.” Leilani continues about how she’s never seen her mother so happy since she got that job at the radio. “Look at you, you’re radiant, you’re beautiful, you’re so happy.”
“I was happy before.”
“You’re the one who’s always pushed me to know what I want and to make it happen.” Materena nods in agreement. But seven years... (291)
Leilani has grown up to be exactly as her mother wanted—intelligent, strong-willed, and independent—just like her mother. She’s simply beginning her difficult journey at an earlier age.
Everything that happens in the small town of Faa’a where Materena lives is passed on through the “coconut radio.” There’s a reason for the novel being titled Frangipani
. These details and Leilani’s announcement to Materena I’ll leave for the reader to explore.
This reviewer is tempted to visit Tahiti simply to see if Tahitians are cranky and really do speak without taking a breath as Vaite jokes. If you can overlook the repetitive wording and the crankiness of the people of Tahiti, Frangipani
can be a delightful read. Though not a bad read, if Vaite concentrated on Leilani throughout the novel, rather than blend her into the underlying stories, Frangipani
would be consider a mother-daughter tale, at least for this reader.Frangipani
was nominated for the 2006 Orange Prize, an award for the best novel of the year written by a woman published in the UK.Frangipani
is the sequel to Vaite’s first novel, Breadfruit
, which was published in Australia. Frangipani
is Vaite’s first novel published in the US. The third part of the trilogy, Tiare
, will come out next year.
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