Set on an unnamed tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, Madeleine Tobert’s debut novel The Sea on Our Skin is a tricky book to describe. On the surface it is a description of a family in the isolated village of Moana, how village life is inseparable from the rhythm of the sea and the seasons, and how their lives are all in themselves intertwined.The story starts with the wedding of sixteen-year-old Amalia Hoko to Ioane Matete, an older man, an enigma, a travelling islander who spends less than a week in the village but needs a wife and sons to carry on his name.
The wedding scene is unforgettable, and while in its aftermath Amalia discovers that Ioane has left, gone travelling again, she realises she is not alone as he has left some of himself behind with her. As Amalia builds her life in the village as a married woman, and mother, she discovers that the island will support her and lend her strength when she needs it – like when Ioane returns and informs her that he will need another son from her to be a traveller with him. She begs him not to take their second child, but he does, and so the island must nurture Amalia again.
The family that Amalia builds in spite of Ioane’s many absences proves her certainty that the island is her support and her shield. However there are dramatic changes in store when Ioane returns for the final time and Amalia’s hidden strength comes to the fore. She gives him one last child and something else to remember her by. Amalia’s children then build their own lives, as the island slowly changes around them and a road links them for the first time, to the other side of the island and all the change that brings.
On another level the novel is reminiscent of novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Laura Esquivel – a surreal drama of humanity and how we all exercise power over our loved ones, and how submission is a form of strength, with its own power. Being set in the Pacific doesn’t detract from the fact that human relationships are strange and wonderful all over the world. It is definitely food for thought and a story that lingers in my thoughts long after putting the book down.
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