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Where the Hell is Tuvalu? by Philip Ells

Where The Hell Is Tuvalu?: How I became the law man of the world's fourth-smallest country - Philip Ells

For a book that, according to Worldcat, cannot be found in a single library in the U.S., this isn’t half bad. It’s another memoir from an expat on a Pacific Island; I read it shortly after the much more popular Sex Lives of Cannibals and liked it a bit better. Troost is a better storyteller than Ells, but Ells has more interesting stories to tell. This is unsurprising, since Ells’s job allows him to see firsthand how people and their society function – as the People’s Lawyer of Tuvalu, he is both public defender and civil law consultant for the entire country (which works because Tuvalu has only about 10,000 people, and also, family law apparently doesn’t exist).

The marketing for this book is way off, suggesting that it is an Eat Pray Love, inspiration for career change kind of memoir. Not only is that off-base given that the author was only in his 20s (this is more youthful adventure than midlife crisis), but I doubt many people would want this career change. Ells is isolated on a tiny island with poor housing, bad food, regular gastrointestinal distress and other illnesses (when it gets serious he has to be medevac’d to Fiji because the local facilities are inadequate), bug and rodent infestations, and no modern conveniences. Oh, and he works hard, which makes sense when there’s an extremely limited social circle and no dating pool to speak of. Sure, swimming in the lagoon is a perk, but this book is unlikely to inspire much travel to Tuvalu.

I’ll get the negatives out of the way first: Ells is not the world’s greatest storyteller, and the book occasionally bogs down in boring descriptions of, for instance, expat social events. Especially in the first half of the book, there are numerous gross-out moments (and it isn’t just the setting; there’s a gratuitous turd story from Ells’s life pre-Tuvalu). Also, the writing uses British slang to the point that I – an American who’s spent several months in England – couldn’t always decipher his meaning. Finally, the author’s habitually flippant tone and his callous behavior toward his seasick assistant make him seem like a jerk for much of the book.

But I warmed back up to him when he showed genuine horror toward domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as an understanding of the societal pressures faced by victims. (He sees little of either type of crime in Tuvalu, where domestic violence is not taken seriously, but deals with a number of horrific crimes while on several weeks’ loan to Kiribati.) And it is definitely an interesting look into a tiny and remote country. Much of the island’s life appears to take place on and around the airport runway, and of course everyone knows everyone else – during a trial for pig stealing, Ells’s assistant can’t stop laughing during his client’s testimony, but then the magistrate lives down the road from the parties and so is unlikely to be fooled anyway. People come to the author with everything from defamation by their neighbors to constitutional crises, giving us a more complete picture of island life than most foreigners are likely to ever see. There is also some humor, though it’s not quite laugh-out-loud funny.

In sum . . . for the only book known to Goodreads to be set primarily in Tuvalu, this is an adequate read. In the end I rather liked reading it, so I'm rounding up to 3 stars on those sites that require me to round, but my copy is headed for the donation bin.