Reading this travel tome from start to finish is almost as mammoth a journey as the one undertook by Theroux himself: island hopping with just his collapsible kayak as company throughout the Pacific from New Zealand all the way to Hawaii.
Theroux’s success as a travel writer comes just as much from his astuteness as an observer as from his uncompromising and unforgiving honesty. Any visions of paradise are quickly tempered with images of shit-covered beaches (“The village beach was the toilet in the Solomons; it was where people shat”); obese islanders gorging tinned spam – circumstantial evidence, Theroux felt, for past cannibalism; and over-zealous Christian missionaries pilfering souls.
The narrative is carried by Theroux’s personal struggles, which were also the catalyst for his epic journey in the first place; his wife leaving him and a thankfully short-lived cancer scare (“I heard melanoma and thought Melanesia”).
While I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the author’s more partial observations (“bandy-legged” Japanese businessmen “Nipponizing” virgin islands), I was impressed at least by the sincerity of his opinions – you get the feeling that nothing is held back, and I also had to take it on the chin as he described his experiences of my own Meganesian countrymen and women.
The pages of Happy Isles are lined with comedy, tragedy, politics and a credible touch of the mundane. A Pacific Island tourism organisation might hesitate to use the book in their marketing, but they’d be foolish not to. Any perceptive reader with a sense of adventure couldn’t help but feel drawn to the islands as Theroux describes them – their idiosyncrasies, history, culture, beauty and repulsiveness in equal measure – which speckle the Pacific Ocean like stars in the night sky.
“There were stars everywhere, above us, and reflected in the sea along with the sparkle of phosphorescence streaming from the bow wave. When I poked an oar in the ocean and stirred it, the sea glittered with twinkling sea-life. … It was as though we were in an old rickety rocket ship.
It was an image that afterwards often came to me when I was travelling in the Pacific, that this ocean was as vast as outer space, and being on this boat was like shooting from one star to another, the archipelagoes like galaxies, and the islands like isolated stars in an empty immensity of watery darkness, and this sailing was like going slowly from star to star, in vitreous night.” – Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific