Book Review: Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam

Things Bright and BeautifulAbout the Book

Mission House was not built for three people. Especially when one of them won’t stop humming.

1954, the South Pacific islands. When Beatriz Hanlon agreed to accompany her missionary husband Max to a remote island, she knew there would be challenges. But it isn’t just the heat and the damp and the dirt. There are more insects than she could ever have imagined, and the islanders are strangely hostile. And then there are the awful noises coming from the church at night.

Yet as the months go by, Bea slowly grows accustomed to life on the island. That is until an unexpected and interminably humming guest arrives, and the couple’s claustrophobic existence is stretched to breaking point.  Events draw to a terrible climax, and Bea watches helplessly as her husband’s guilt drives him into madness. It’s not long before Bea finds herself fighting for her freedom and her life.

Format: ebook, hardcover (288 pp.)        Publisher: Fig Tree
Published: 5th April 2018                           Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Things Bright and Beautiful is set on an island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), which I can safely say is a first for me as the location for a book.  “The isle is full of noises” (The Tempest, Act 3 Scene 2).

Arriving on Advent Island with her missionary husband, Max, Bea finds her new home is no Bali Ha’i.  Whatever she was expecting it wasn’t the incessant insects, dirt, heat, rain and the almost suffocating nature of the jungle.  ‘Its constant whirring noises, its fetid organic complexity.  Its restlessness. So many thousands of trees and and bushes and leaves, each populated by slithering, crawling insects, all with tiny hearts pumping and pumping.’ The jungle threatens to invade even their home in the Mission House.  ‘On Advent Island, the jungle refused to stay outdoors, it lurked at the corners of the village and wormed its way into civilization.  Pale weevils cavorted in the powdered milk, black orchids blossomed in the shower… It perpetuated itself with explosive fertility.’

Max is buoyed up by the strength of his faith and his fervent belief in the importance of his mission. ‘To think there were still villages, here on the island, which had never heard the Word.  It was the last frontier.  His chance to carve out another kingdom for the Lord.’  However, Bea initially struggles to adjust to the many ‘tabus’ governing a woman’s place in the social order of the island.   ‘She wasn’t supposed to go walking around by herself.  She wasn’t to show any skin above her elbows or knees…She wasn’t allowed to go out in a dugout canoe.  It was tabu for women to fish…She wasn’t to wear her hair loose.  She mustn’t dry her cloths outside, especially any underclothes. She wasn’t to point directly at anything, because it was unlucky.’    I loved the way the author gives us small signs of Bea’s spirited and slightly rebellious nature, a spirit that will sustain her through the trials to come.  ‘It made Bea feel a little wild.  All she wished to do was to leap from her house on a Sunday morning, wearing only her underclothes with her hair shockingly loose, and run straight down the cost in a dugout and start fishing.’

The island is so remote – no running water, sanitation, electricity – that I constantly had to remind myself the book is set in the 1950s, not in the Victorian age.  Bea and Max’s isolation from the life they’ve known before is almost total.  ‘They had brought a transistor radio with them, but the island was too far out to catch any frequencies.’  Because there are no clocks on the island, the pace of life follows ‘island time’.  However, the islanders are industrious and resourceful, making use of whatever animal life, fruit, herbs and roots the island can provide.  They are used to making long treks between villages that take hours, even days, over often perilous paths where one slip can spell disaster – and, in fact, does with momentous consequences.

Although many of the islanders have ostensibly embraced Christianity, they cling to their traditional ways or ‘kastoms’, with anything else being ‘tabu’.  They have a particularly strong sense of the power of the Devil, who exists for them as an almost physical presence within parts of the jungle or within people.  Under the influence of the charismatic Aru, the villagers indulge in ‘dark praying’ in an effort to exorcise the evil presence they feel all about them.

Bea’s mood lifts as the rainy season ends and the vibrant, kaleidoscopic profusion of the island becomes evident, conveyed in wonderfully lush prose by the author.  ‘Candy-pink hibiscus flowers appeared in the hedges, crinkled at the edges like crȇpe paper.  Crimson-headed honeyeaters buzzed at the tips of banana suckers.  Gigantic butterflies swarmed in and out of the palms, streaked with electric-blue zigzags.  Occasionally, in the fringes of the coconut palms south of the village, there was the bright flash of parrots, a conflagration of colours so impossibly lurid they looked like novelty recreations of themselves, made from marzipan.’  Max is not doing so well.  The rain, the insects, the humidity, the heat, the macabre night-time chanting of the islanders and the after-effects of malarial fever all play on his mind.  ‘The island was doing things to him.  He was supposed to be here to set an example.’  He is also consumed by guilt for his role in a tragic event that he has kept secret.

Having formed a valuable friendship, Bea gradually develops a courage and resilience that surprises Max.  She’s no longer the damaged young woman he first met in Venezuela.  However, affected by the febrile atmosphere of the island, Max begins to fear that Bea’s very soul is in spiritual danger.  ‘And despite his best efforts, the darkness inside her persisted’.  Events take a darker turn before reaching a shocking conclusion.

The book introduces other characters and another storyline that touches on the impact of colonialism and the plight of Vietnamese workers brought to the island on five year contracts to toil in the plantations. However, this always feels secondary to the compelling story of Max and Bea.

This is a book that transports the reader to another time and place. At times, Things Bright and Beautiful has a dreamlike quality; at other times, it’s more the stuff of nightmares.  With its intoxicating atmosphere, Things Bright and Beautiful is like the love child of Black Narcissus, Heart of Darkness and Wide Sargasso Sea.  An impressive and imaginative debut; I look forward to reading more from this author.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Fig Tree, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Strange, atmospheric, immersive

Try something similar…The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (click here to read my review)

Anbara SalamAbout the Author

Anbara Salam is half-Palestinian and half-Scottish, and grew up in London. She has a PhD in Theology and now lives in Oxford. She spent six months working on a small South Pacific island, and her experiences there served as the inspiration for her first novel, Things Bright and Beautiful.

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