Sunday, November 16, 2008

Island Song by Alan Chin


Reviewed by Victor J. Banis

"They swim in a silent blue-green world thirty feet below the surface in the Sea of Cortez. Garret loves to swim facing up so he can watch their bubbles float away, mingling together as they race to the surface. It seems magical how they move…They dart around the rusted hull of a sunken freighter, like sea otters at play, until a giant manta ray glides up from beneath them, serene and graceful. The manta spans fifteen feet across, dark gray on top and virgin white on the underside. It flies right up to and around them, performing a slow motion ballet…Marc, the bold one, kicks his legs and glides to the back of the ray. He grabs hold with both hands near the eyes and begins to soar away, riding the ray like a magic carpet. Garrets struggles to catch them, and soon both divers ride the creature through the blue-green water…The giant saucer wings its way right into a school of squid, thousands of glistening clear-white bodies with long flowing tails. The vision is electrifying.
* * *
Reading Alan Chin's Island Song is as pleasurable as lolling in a hammock beneath the palm trees, sipping a Mai Tai and savoring the trade winds wafting from the ocean.
This is an impressive debut novel from an enormously talented new writer on the glbt horizon. Like the island shamans of which he writes, the author seems to cast a magic spell, transporting the reader from the printed page into the very scenes he evokes: one smells the scent of frangipani wafting from the tropical forests, feels the soft sand beneath one's feet, thrills to the graceful ballet of whales swimming—and, yes, knows the full horror as the teeth of a great white shark tear into one's flesh.
* * *
Garrett Davidson has come to a remote corner of the islands to finish a book and to recover from the death of his lover. Songoree is the grandson of the local kahuna anaana, descendant of powerful shaman warriors. The love that grows between them is developed in exquisitely subtle detail, with a growing sense of understated eroticism, so that even a first, fleeting kiss, the merest brushing of their lips together, is almost climactic in its intensity.
The author intends more here, though, than just a love story. Without resorting to preaching, he offers the reader as well a spiritually uplifting primer on enlightenment, and especially the wisdom of learning to live in the now.

It may be this underlying life-philosophy that encouraged the author to write the novel in the present tense. This was admittedly a bold decision, one with inherent challenges for both writer and reader. It is done here as well as I have seen it done, for which the author is to be commended. Only once or twice does he trip himself up and I doubt that most non-writers will notice, in large part because the prose is generally so compelling that one is simply swept along with the story. And I am a champion of the writer's freedom to do what he will with his material. Sometimes the novel dictates that you break from convention and one can see how that might have happened here.

Still, to paraphrase pianist Artur Rubenstein (he was speaking of playing Chopin) children and geniuses can get away with self indulgence; the writer serious about mastering his craft and, most importantly, being taken seriously, does better to work within the norms, though that is admittedly only my opinion and I do not pretend that mine is the only one.
The truth is, however, that few novels achieve perfect, nor does this one, and since I have touched upon its imperfections, let me get the rest of them out of the way in short order and be done with it.

While the principle characters are beautifully realized, which makes their growing love deliciously real and believable, a large cast of secondary characters remains mostly one dimensional.

Regrettably, too, the book continues for another twenty or so pages after the real story—Garrett's catharsis through his love for Songoree—is effectively over, thus somewhat blunting the ending. The writing in those twenty pages is fine, but the few details of interest there could better have been shorthanded into two or three paragraphs of an epilogue, making for a far cleaner and more satisfactory conclusion.

And, yes, a keener editorial eye would have been welcome, but that problem has become ubiquitous these days, sadly.

These are writer-ly complaints, however, and unlikely to diminish the considerable pleasure awaiting the reader who picks up this fresh and rapturous novel. Those who like their romance with a little substance will find this one a feast for the senses—as beautiful and as breathtaking as a tropical waterfall, as mystical and graceful as the world beneath the sea, and as sweet and satisfying as a juicy, ripe Hawaiian mango.
Highly recommended.

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