For many, the islands of Polynesia are little more than vacation destinations. Beyond the beaches and sunny weather, however, many of these islands have histories of colonization and exploitation that continue to affect their indigenous populations. “Pina,” the first novel by Tahitian author Titaua Peu to be translated into English, deals with the darker side of life in Tahiti.
The titular Pina is a nine-year-old girl with an abusive alcoholic father, eight siblings and a mother who hates her for not being born a boy. Despite her youth, she already knows the world is unfair. She recognizes, for example, that her mother favors her sister Rosa, despite her laziness, because she has lighter skin and hair. She also identifies that the Tahiti shown in postcards is not the Tahiti she knows: “sweet sights, visions of a paradise that was only in the brochures that people sometimes tried to sell her … Pretty pictures that Pina kept in the back of her mind, that more often than not were erased, shoved aside, by other pictures, real ones, pictures she had actually lived.”
Even though the book is named after her, I would not call Pina the protagonist; in fact, Pina herself does surprisingly little and serves mostly as an observer. Instead, “Pina” is about her family as a whole and is told from several different points of view.
Her family’s relative stability is shattered early on when the father, Auguste, is rendered comatose after a car crash. Pina’s mother uses this as an opportunity to look for love elsewhere, but the reprieve from her reality of domestic violence is only temporary. Auguste wakes up and is even more violent than before, to the point where he becomes a serial killer — initially targeting local men that pimp out underage Tahitian girls to white tourists, he soon goes after anyone he deems “dirty.”
Auguste comes from a family of indigenous warriors who resisted white colonizers. His experiences of racism are shown through flashbacks: “It was there that Auguste came into the real world. A world that he could tell was unfair, where men, those of his race, of his land, were never to be masters again, not even of themselves.” His fury against white men consumes him, and he takes it out on his wife and children.
At its best, “Pina” is deeply engrossing. I was never bored, and there were times when I felt the need to tell my friends about it because I thought it was too impressive to keep to myself.
“For many, the islands of Polynesia are little more than vacation destinations. Beyond the beaches and sunny weather, however, many of these islands have histories of colonization and exploitation that continue to affect their indigenous populations.”
A lot happens, much of it unpleasant. There are murders, terrorist attacks, political demonstrations, numerous sexual assaults and homophobic hate crimes. The narrative jumps between viewpoints, time periods and locations, so I sometimes felt lost.
On one hand, this compelled me to keep turning the pages because I wanted to know where Peu would take the story next. On the other hand, it’s easy to get lost, and some might feel overwhelmed by the sheer darkness of the story.
There are also a lot of characters that are hard to keep to track of. Chapters about Hannah — Pina’s older sister who lives in France — just confused me since they felt detached from everything else. However, other characters are excellently fleshed out. I especially enjoyed reading the sections that humanize Pina’s parents, even as they do terrible things.
Peu’s prose is a delight to read. It pulled me in from the first few pages and crackles with energy throughout. The language is generally blunt, but there are moments of terrible sadness and beauty, such as this scene where Pina seeks comfort from her mother: “She was looking off in the distance, over the old flame trees, and for the first time, her lips whispered ‘mommy,’ with so much quiet and pain. She thought hard about the word. Mommy. It was the prettiest word God had ever made up and that the wind had ever carried.”
As the book goes on, things get more and more intense, culminating in a shocking climax — and a disappointing ending. It seems Peu wanted to end the novel on an uplifting note after all the preceding brutality, but it undoes the emotional impact of what came just before. It feels a little too neat – cheap even.
Despite this criticism, “Pina” is an extraordinary achievement from an important writer who will hopefully be translated more widely in the future. I would not hesitate to call it one of the best books I read in the past year.