Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i
by Susanna Moore

Grove Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8021-1862-3.
Reviewed by Becky Lane
Posted on 03/18/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir

Susanna Moore paints mesmerizing pictures with words. She begins her memoir with "No memory presents itself of my first acquaintance with the sea. It was always there, and I was always in it." What I soon discovered was that the pictures she paints are not so much of herself, but of the place she happened to be at the time, the oceans that surrounded it, and the books that kept her company.

Moore employs an unusual format for this book. Following each brief chapter is at least an equal number of pages filled with excerpts from classic tales of the sea, the constant companions of her youth. In her first chapter she says "One summer when my mother was recovering from a breakdown, we lived on the beach..." but never goes into any detail. Later she writes "I was overcome by the idea of shipwreck. I suspect the unconscious was doing its work. My family, while high-strung, was not a shipwreck quite yet, but I divined its coming." With voyeuristic lust I raced through twenty pages of shipwreck tales from Daniel Defoe and John Fiske, anxious to get back to Susanna's own story, only to find that it never really materializes.

In the next chapter, there is one brief mention of her father being a doctor, but nothing about his role in the family dynamics. Instead I learned about the Hawaiians themselves, and their attitude towards life. Moore tells us "One of my Hawaiian friends insisted that Hawaiians were not working class. The working class wanted televisions and motorboats, but Hawaiians didn't want anything." Following that, I waded through eighteen pages of excerpts from Herman Melville, Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad and Herodotus, searching for a unifying theme that would tie into the chapter, but never finding one. This was the pattern for the remainder of the book.

Although I came away with a very clear picture of Hawaii, the "ravishing little world...redolent with romance" but also "an hierarchical, snobbish and quietly racist society," my picture of Susanna Moore remained fuzzy, and each chapter left me wanting more. While doing some research on the Internet, I discovered that she wrote an earlier memoir, titled I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai'i. Perhaps I should have read that one first.

Born in 1945, Susanna Moore has written several novels, a travel book, and two memoirs. She enjoys her claim to living only on islands, although the current one happens to be in New York. Visit her website.

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