Natur och Kultur, 2012.
Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2012:2
Review Section: Adult Fiction
Lotta Lundberg’s latest novel explores what happens when two diametrically opposed cultures clash. There are similarities here to the incidents in the British colony Pitcairn Island, inhabited by descendants of the Bounty mutineers, when, in 2004/05, male islanders were convicted of sexual offences against under-age girls. In both cases the investigation is called Operation Unique, and those eventually convicted have to build their own prison. On the one hand there is the supposedly utopian paradise on the tiniest of islands in the most remote part of the South Pacific, on the other the British colonial authority.
Island life is interrupted only by welcome visits of cruise ships to boost the local economy and provide a necessary link with the outside world. This is the way it has always been, certainly for the twenty-five years that Olivia Danielsson has spent on the island. When she had almost qualified as a medical doctor, she suddenly left the University of Uppsala to live her dream and travel the Pacific, a free and rebel spirit. She intended to go back eventually, but never does: the island is her idea of paradise, she meets the man she came to share her life with and settles down there working as a GP. Things just happen: she falls in love with the island, its people and carefree way of life. With each year that passes Olivia feels more and more integrated into the laid-back society of the islanders, including occasional bacchanalian feasts and wild dancing in the tropical night. Research for the novel on the Cook Islands has nade the author realise how ethnocentric her own views are.
The novel opens when the investigative team of three social workers from London arrives on the island — the government under Tony Blair is keen to do something about decades of neglect of a defenceless community. Over the past century there have been sporadic reports of sexual abuse of under-age children, and allegations of a moral catastrophe with widespread prostitution and promiscuity. It gradually became something of a nightmare scenario as far as London was concerned. Under the slogan ‘the island is our responsibility’ the action to save a degenerate colony started; the media had a field day with sensational stories about the ‘paedophile island’.
A furious father stepped forward to tell how his teenage daughter had been assaulted and raped four years earlier by a gang of islanders on the silver-wedding cruise of her parents. Olivia remembers the incident well, and cannot help worrying about any possible mistakes she might have made. As a doctor, she interviewed the girl and decided there was no need to examine her, for nothing much had happened during the children’s usual horseplay in the lagoon. The island’s way of life was influenced by laid-back Polynesian society where girls matured early – as often as not they were willing sexual partners. Given her position she would surely have known if somebody was being sexually assaulted; however, it was only later that she learnt about the father who had sexually abused his very young twin daughters and died in a supposed accident. As the investigation proceeds, Olivia gradually realises with mounting desperation and anger that she is being ostracised and treated as an alien Westerner by her island friends.
The investigative team of two men and one woman are enchanted by this lovely place: they mix socially with the islanders for drinks and flirting; they get involved in coral gardening to rejuvenate the reefs, a private initiative that the islanders have started without any kind of official financial support. The islanders are cynical about how they are being treated by their colonial superiors: over the years too many nuclear tests have taken place there – the island might well end up as a military base. And the early warning system for tsunamis is not getting enough priority. At a women’s meeting they try to explain how their culture works and defend their men, but in doing so they give the investigation damning evidence against their way of life. Who in their right mind would speak up for a paedophile island?
Unfortunately, and despite some impressive individuals, the islanders remain largely anonymous and elusive. The reader is left with a number of unanswered questions about the human unanswered questions about the human tragedy, about deeply ingrained cultural differences and the assumed superiority of Western values regarding sexuality and morality, and an uneasy feeling that in spite of all the good intentions, the island is the real rape victim – a paradise lost.