This book, by a Samoan author about the life of a young Samoan girl, will be best enjoyed by a local audience. It isn’t often that I find a book to be truly lost in translation – especially when that book was actually written in English (though with untranslated Samoan words sprinkled liberally throughout) – and I intend no criticism of the book simply because it isn’t written for me; it isn’t this author’s job to write books in an American style. That said, I wish I’d seen a review before choosing this book that had let me know it might not be the best choice for foreign readers. Now I see that all the other Goodreads reviewers have either lived in the Pacific or met the author personally, so likely had a different experience with it.
Figiel is apparently a performance poet, and this novella – comprising many short chapters in which the 10-year-old narrator observes various aspects of life in her community – is undoubtedly better in live performance. It deals with some heavy issues, and I can see why Samoan readers might connect deeply with it. For me though, it was rather frustrating. It jumps from one topic to the next without any consistent plot or focus. And the writing is extremely choppy and peppered with Samoan words, without a glossary. Here’s a sample:
Our house is big. With a bed and a sefe and the key Vaiese carries around her neck. Day and night. And doesn’t remove it. Ever. Even when she showers. Thieves she said. As she beat Moa and Logo up. For opening the pisupo. Which was to be for the old lady’s koagai. At the Women’s Committee. Le mafaufau ia o lua pogaua as she slapped and slapped their faces. And took the key away from under the left leg of the sefe. Where it was usually kept and only us girls knew about it. And hung it around her neck. You’re never ever ever gonna touch the key again. Ever. Ua lau faalogo mai?
We have four wooden chairs in the front. With a table which Soane made at carpenter class. Where all the Bibles are kept. Right below Jesus. All the women gather there to talk. To play suipi. To play poker.
We’re at the back during these meetings. Folding the laundry. Sweeping the floor. Listening to the women talk talk talk.
Folau says they should have koko alaisa at the next Women’s Committee bingo. That would attract the youth.
Pola says she’s thinking of buying a new teapot. The tea doesn’t taste good anymore.
Eseese says if it was up to her she would have never let Malia marry that lazy-useless-husband of hers. Ae kuaia ia leaga e leo sau kama.
If all that makes sense to you, go for it! As for me, I would have gotten more out of a different book.