Book Review: The Happy Isles of Oceania

WARNING fellow book club members – mild spoilers ahead

The Happy Isles of OceaniaThe Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Huh. Well. What to say about this book that won’t put off the rest of my book club fellows before they’ve read it.

I did not enjoy this book. I think it probably could’ve been named “The Depressing Isles of Oceania” and been a lot more accurate.

The author is not a very happy person as he travels in his collapsible kayak around the isles. This is perhaps a bit understandable as he & his wife have just split up.

However, there doesn’t seem to be anything that can make him happy. People are either too helpful, or not helpful enough. He’s desperately afraid that he’s going to be robbed in (American and Western) Samoa. He really seems to have a problem with fat people (repeatedly mentioning that certain islanders are fat, such as Samoans, Tongans, various chiefs, etc.).

He searches for the decadence of the mythical South Pacific, but seems a little disturbed when it’s actually hinted at. He abhors religion (which, fine, I’m not fond of it either), but actually will challenge and mock individuals for their faith. I’m always up for a debate, but I think he mistook the word “debate” for “baiting.”

I have never been anywhere close to the Isles Mr. Theroux visits (not even Hawaii…sigh), and although I do believe they’re likely not the paradise depicted by films and books, I have a hard time believing that they are as sad & depressed & lazy & gluttonous & obnoxious & unfriendly & nosy as they are depicted in this book.

In one of what I thought was the most telling passages in the book, Mr. Theroux scoffs at anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl’s belief that the Moai statues on Easter Island could not have been created by the Polynesian inhabitants of the island**: “Probably the most obnoxious aspect of Heyerdahl is that he appears to display a deep bias, bordering on contempt, against Polynesians. In Fatu-Hiva, he maintains that the Marquesans are too lazy to have create the ambitious stonework and carvings on Hiva Oa.” This is funny, considering he spends a lot of the book’s chapters talking about the laziness of the Pacific Islanders (from the chapter on American Samoa): “[The American Samoans] were victimizers, they were oafish, and lazy, and defiant, and disrespectful.”

Overall, I hope that Mr. Theroux is in a happier place now (he seemed much happier in Hawaii, although whether that was due to the fact that he was beginning to accept his divorce, or whether the comforts of America were all he needed for a good cheer up, I can’t say) – and I’d like to read another book about this region from a more positive point of view.

**I am trying to say that the reason he scoffs is what amuses me – it’s been proven that the Easter Islanders are in fact of Polynesian (Marquesas, I think) descent, and that they did, indeed, create the Moai statues.

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