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Book Review - Frangipani

Manaswini Garimella

There is a word that describes a father-son relationship: filial. But there is no real correspondent to a mother-daughter relationship. And while use of the word filial has expanded, the lack of an original word, at least, one that comes quickly to mind, can say much about our society. This may be one of the reasons why Célestine Vaite’s novel Frangipani is so refreshing; it is an exploration of a relationship between the mother and her daughter. Even more unique, it is written from the mother’s point-of-view, and set in sunny Tahiti.

The blurb on the jacket opens with “Her name is Materena Mahi, and she’s the best listener in Tahiti.” And although we follow Materena through the book, and it is her story being told, we see how she really is an excellent listener, making us, the readers and listeners, connect with her experience. The book is also told in the present tense as though it provides a running commentary of Materena’s life, following her from her first pregnancy to her triumphant hosting of a radio show. With a voice that is never incoherent, and always grounded in the Tahitian language, Vaite provides an excellent view of Tahitian culture for those who have no experience with it. We come to love Materena as we see her do things that we are familiar with in our own lives but simply in a different time and place.

Reading it from an Indian perspective, I was thrilled with the similarities that I found in the book and my own life. I have seen the peculiarities that are characteristic of a culture when it is absorbed into a mainstream “Western” culture, and seeing them detailed in plain language in a novel made me smile.

Materena is an engaging heroine, and one that I was glad to know as I read the story, and even though I have never been to Tahiti, and know nothing about the culture, I was able to learn from the book and connect to it, perhaps because of its tender exploration of mothers and daughters – I’ve definitely had many of the experiences described between Materena and Leilani with my own mother.

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