Fc O'neill's Reviews > The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific

The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux
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's review
Aug 10, 2011

1992- 733pp

Theroux launches out on a tantalizing adventure with the plan to kayak the shimmering Pacific from island to island, exploring its surfy coasts and blue lagoons, and happily taking up residence to discover the secrets of these seemingly happy isles. He compares the vast Pacific to the Universe: each island like a distant star, each archipelago like a galaxy. His travels begin in what he calls “Meganesia”: the great islands of New Zealand, where he walks the mountain trails of the Fiordland wilderness; and Australia, where he hikes the red ranges around Alice Springs (“Oceania after someone has pulled the plug”) and camps among crocodiles and wild pigs on an Aboriginal reserve.

Then, traveling with his collapsible kayak. Theroux lives among the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea, and discovers the truth about their fabled sexual lives. From there, via the megapode egg-diggers of the Solomon Islands and the cargo cults of Vanuatu, he proceeds to Melanesian Fiji and Polynesian Tonga, where he is granted an audience with King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV. After living a Robinson Crusoe fantasy on a desert island, Theroux continues under tropical skies to Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and the last points on the Polynesian triangle: Easter Island and the paradise of Hawaii.

A mesmerizing narrator- brilliant, witty, keenly perceptive- Paul Theroux enters a Gauguin painting, sails in the wake of Captain Cook, recalls the bewitching tales of Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson, and we follow. Alone in his kayak, paddling to seldom visited shores, he glides through time and space, discovering a world of islands, their remarkable people, and in turn, happiness.

Yet before happiness, there is air of personal turgidity about Theroux. He is seeking that happiness, he is homeless, and there is the alluded to breakdown of his family life.

Like the scholar he is, he has done an extensive literature review before setting off and views his travels within the light of those histories and stories.

He's not an always easy companion, especially through the core middle of this book Though vastly entertaining and with an excellent sense of place he can be cranky, complaining and mean-spirited. He arrives is places where tourists aren't welcomed and publicly berated. We feel for him though he can become unintentionally the butt of jokes within his own writing. When he arrives in the Hawaiian Islands he meets 'Travel writers' and is glad he isn't one. For me he is a journeyman who writes. He doesn't do it easy. He roughs it for most of the book and even becomes uncomfortable when in luxury. There is the ascetic within him. He is as he calls himself " a natural skeptic" and one feels it is the under-described periods of paddling wherein he is happiest.

The book doesn't end with him at home waiting for the pub to open at 5.30 pm, for him to have a pint of stout and read the paper while reminiscing on his travels. Moreover he quits his travelogue in Hawaii, put down his pen, decides to stay there a few more months, having found a sort happiness and paddles some more there. He ends with the full eclipse of the moon in 1991, where commemorative cans of darkness are on sale, and we sense it is the beginning of a new age for him.


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