‘Beatriz knew it was wrong to hate a missionary, but when it came to Marietta, she couldn’t help herself. Marietta liked to hum. Interminable, tuneless humming, like the dirge of a bluebottle. Bea was acutely aware of quite how often Marietta felt the need to serenade the Lord. Marietta sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ in the garden. She droned ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ in her bedroom. She whined ‘Jesus, Mi Lavem Yu Tumas’ under her breath while they ate supper together. Upon interrogation, Max claimed he hadn’t noticed, but Bea didn’t believe him. The noise filtered through the cracks in the bamboo walls, and crawled right into the ears. Mission House was simply not built for two people, and one hummer’.
And so begins Anbara Salam’s tale of island life in the remote pacific of what used to be referred to as the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Joining her missionary husband on a quest to bring the word of god to an ‘unenlightened’ people who still believe in leaf magic and exorcisms, Beatriz unwittingly becomes the victim of this hauntingly suspicious community.
Beautifully engrossing to begin with, Salam sets up the everyday frustrations and annoyances that come with living on a tropical island. Harsh weather conditions drown the fruits of Bea’s labour, cockroaches infest every corner of life, followed by the damage and destruction caused by rodents. The heat and the rain are intricately woven into Things Bright and Beautiful, creating a relentlessly harsh atmosphere. In some ways it reminded me of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea – one of my all-time favourite novels – as there is so much promise and potential in the way Salam sets up the beginning of her tale. As I progressed into the first section, I found myself taking on Bea and Max’s irritation towards Marietta – an elderly missionary who has just returned from the east. In the stifling heat of the tropics, Marietta becomes a larger than life character – too big for the simple village house assigned to them. Marietta’s habits – from walking to eating – are described to such a degree that they are almost grotesque. She is a woman unashamedly taking up too much space, which becomes a problem for Max in particular.
Section one ends prophetically. We are given some idea about what is going to happen but are suddenly thrown back into the past, a few months previous. It is here that the narrative appears to unravel. New characters are introduced, making it seem as if the threads are somehow going to join together at some point. However, the language becomes quite clunky and the characters underdeveloped. Threads do not, in fact, weave together as seamlessly as I had hoped so that, by the end of the book, I was left with a lot of unanswered questions.
The only sections that really stood out for me were the ones told from Bea’s point of view. A woman of Spanish origin, she finds herself left at a hospital after a brutal encounter with her boyfriend. Instead of being sent to a mental asylum after recovery, she happens to encounter Max whose saviour complex strongly attracts him to her. In stark contrast to Max’s masculine, patriarchal need to ‘save’ women and his religious obligation to rescue people from lives of sin, Bea is one of the few characters who integrates into the community without imposing her beliefs on them. It’s a shame that Things Bright and Beautiful didn’t delve more into the interiority and complexity of Bea’s situation.
‘Things Bright and Beautiful’ by Anbara Salam was published on 5th April. Thank you to Penguin Books, via Netgalley, for the review copy.