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The Sailmaker's Daughter by Stephanie Johnson

The Sailmaker's Daughter - Stephanie Johnson

This was my world books challenge book for Fiji. I’d read that the author based it on her grandmother’s story and assumed the grandmother was Fijian, so was disappointed to discover that the characters are all actually English colonists in Fiji. Unfortunately, I have not found any books starring native Fijians.

This is a work of historical fiction, set over a few weeks in 1918 when influenza was raging through Fiji. The book follows numerous characters, including 12-year-old Olive, who is sent with two of her brothers to stay with an aunt and uncle on another island while her mother is dying; her father, a sailmaker, and mother, a former actress; her oldest brother, a veteran with PTSD; two of her other brothers, who get into scrapes; her grandmother, a cranky old woman who has a vaginal infection due to wearing too many underclothes (?); her aunt, who after several miscarriages is addicted to laudanum; her other aunt, who has an intellectual disability and lives hidden in an outbuilding; a pair of lady travelers who happen by and are having an affair . . . too many for a 250-page book, and the book is forever jumping around amongst them and between the first and third person. It doesn’t help either that while some things happen, events aren’t organized into a plot, and many don't seem to contribute anything to the story. It’s telling when the last 25 pages of a novel suddenly introduce a whole new family not previously mentioned and focus on exploring their dynamics. There is no structure, no cohesion, and little reason to invest in any of these many characters.

That said, the book is readable, and a quick read to boot. It also does provide an interesting view on life in Fiji in the early 20th century. It was a diverse place on the cusp of change, though you wouldn’t want to live there – according to this book, if you weren’t white, you’d be oppressed, and if you were, you’d most likely be miserable.

Anyway, I am not going to spend a lot of words slamming a book no one has heard of. For good reason; there's nothing to see here.