8. A book written in Australia/Pacific Islands: This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila
List Progress: 17/30
It is rare to find a book of short stories without a weak link. The chances go up with a single-author collection, but there is almost always at least one installment that feels lacking: the premise under-thought or too lightly sketched, the characters too thin, or the morals simplistic and hokey. But This is Paradise, the 2013 debut of Hawaiian author Kristiana Kahakauwila, fires on all cylinders for each and every story. While the short length is in Kahakauwila’s favor, with only six stories in the collection, that is still an exceptional outing. Each of the six feels like a complete and nuanced snapshot of contemporary Hawaii and the people who live there.
In the titular “This is Paradise”, the murder of a young white tourist ripples through the native Hawaiian women, from the hotel staff who find her body, to the surfers who met her while bar-hopping, to the professionals who view the tragedy from afar. The tourist wanted to see Hawaii as a fantasy-land where nothing bad could happen to her, but the women who live there know it is a place as real as any other, complete with dangers. “Wanle” gives perhaps the most nuanced and sympathetic depiction of people who engage in blood sports out there, as a young woman tries to live up to her father’s cockfighting legacy and navigate the machismo and dangers of that world. “The Road to Hana” puts Hawaiian identity under a microscope, with a white male narrator who was born and raised in Hawaii, contrasted with his girlfriend who is ethnically Hawaiian but from Las Vegas. He considers himself obviously “more” Hawaiian than her, but she sees nuances there that he can never understand. “Thirty-Nine Rules for Making A Hawaiian Funeral Into A Drinking Game” takes the biggest structural risk, using the titular list format to show the narrator trying to keep herself together and her thoughts and emotions organized in the face of family tragedy. “Portrait of a Good Father” is a small domestic drama, with a young girl seeing but not understanding her parents’ broken marriage until grief cracks it open beyond repair. And “The Old Paniolo Way” closes the book as an elderly father closes his life, mourned by his son and daughter as they grapple with questions of gender, sexuality, identity and legacy in the light of his slow demise.
There are a number of commonalities across these stories. Kahakauwila clearly has an interest in young Hawaiians who went to the mainland for college and are navigating their returns, and the complications of morally gray parents, especially at or after the end of their lives. This can occasionally make the stories feel repetitive, at least as they are laying the groundwork in the beginning of each. But the main characters of each story are soon fleshed out into complete people, and each story is long enough to take them on a full arc as they grow and change as a person. And the structural experimentation of “This is Paradise” and “Thirty-Nine Rules” keeps things fresh; they are well positioned as the first and fourth stories. Between the crafting of each individual story, and how they are arranged and juxtaposed against each other, This is Paradise is a masterclass in short story anthology writing. Each story is its own entity, it’s own narrative island, but the chain they make is even more than the sum of its parts.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, highly.