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The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific - J. Maarten Troost

Martin Troost’s life wasn’t going much of anywhere, so he lucked out when his girlfriend got a job in the remote Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where he spent his time learning to surf, drinking with other expats, and trying to write a novel. He never succeeded – from the superficial depictions of everyone else in this book, I suspect character development was a problem – but their two-year stint on the island of Tarawa provided fodder for this book, about the difficulties, pitfalls, and occasional rewards of expat life on the island.

Troost’s storytelling is competent, and the stories about, for instance, his struggle to buy fresh water when the tank ran dry (the water company offered it for sale... but how to transport water home when the only fire truck is broken?) and a voyage on stormy seas in a plywood boat, are entertaining and sometimes humorous. He also includes a brief history of the country, which is informative. I couldn’t read more than a chapter or two at a time without finding the writing tiring, though. And this is definitely a book for those with strong stomachs: from the descriptions of public defecation, to the critters in the water tank and medical refuse on the reef, to the mother dog biting off a passing puppy’s leg to feed to her own pups, much of the content is fairly repulsive.

My biggest issue with the book, though, is its irrelevance. Troost spent two years in Kiribati, but to judge by this book, he never got to know any of the locals, and his observations of the culture are infrequent and superficial. I can’t help comparing it to the three Peace Corps memoirsand one excellent travel narrative I’ve read this year, and the comparison does not serve this book well. Troost lazed away his time on Tarawa, learned little and provides no insight into the place (though his observations about poor foreign aid decisions are biting).

Also, there’s no sex and no cannibalism – unless you count the dogs.

I hesitate to even count this as my challenge book from Kiribati; the problem is that the island nation has only around 100,000 inhabitants, none of whom have ever produced a novel, memoir, or short story collection. (The blogger I linked to got an I-Kiribati professor to mail her his poetry-cum-essay collection, much of which is not in English, which is further than I'm willing to go for my challenge right now.) Nor, per the Goodreads country page, has any foreigner ever written a novel starring an I-Kiribati character. Which leaves me with travel narratives; I’m keeping my eyes open for a richer one than this.