The Frisbies of the South Seas: Life’s too short

The Frisbies of the South Seas, Johnny Frisbie, 1959

  • Cook Islands, #3
  • Borrowed from Fresno State Library, via SF Library
  • Read: September 2015
  • Rating: 2/5
  • Recommended for: Breathless admirers of Robert Dean Frisbie

I was struggling through this short memoir by the daughter of Robert Dean Frisbie when I took a break to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant (which is amazing, by the way, and heartbreaking in a way that Ishiguro is a master of, and you should definitely read it). That tome sounded the death knoll for The Frisbies of the South Seas; I’d been toiling through the latter’s first hundred pages for the better part of a week, but I tore through The Buried Giant in one day. It reminded me what a joy reading can and should be, how a really good book leads you on and makes you want to continue reading it. The previous two Cook Island book were also exercises in endurance; The Island of Desire was somewhat literary but neither were written with enough skill to keep the reader engaged. I hate to leave a book unfinished, especially when I’m more than halfway through it, and Johnny Frisbie’s book isn’t terrible. But on the other hand, I have a 40-year reading list to get through here, and I have to start being a little more ruthless. At the back of my mind, too, is Nick Hornby’s advice in the opening paragraphs of The Polysyllabic Spree (a book I love, which never fails to make me excited about reading):

…reading for enjoyment is what we should be doing. I don’t mean we should all be reading chick lit or thrillers (although if that’s what you want to read, it’s fine by me, because here’s something else no one will ever tell you: if you don’t read the classics, or the novel that won this year’s Booker Prize, then nothing bad will happen to you; more importantly, nothing good will happen to you if you do); I simply mean that turning pages should not be like walking through thick mud. The whole purpose of books is that we read them, and if you find you can’t, it might not be your inadequacy that’s to blame.

Nick Hornby is obviously a man who shares my love of semicolons. I don’t agree with all of it; sometimes I think it is worth pushing yourself through a difficult book. Voss, for instance, is one of the best books I’ve read on this project, but it was a little bit of a slog. I had to really slow myself down, parse every sentence, read everything twice, and still I think there was a lot of meaning that eluded me. But if I was bored at times, it wasn’t because I didn’t like the book–I found it challenging, but intriguing, and in the end I thought it was well worth the effort I had to put in.

Seychelles, 2007
Seychelles, 2007

But sometimes you just have to recognize that a book isn’t for you, and this was one of those times. Besides, I didn’t think I was going to get much more insight into Cook Islands culture from the last 70 pages of this rambling and disjointed series of memories about the Frisbie children’s life on Pukapuka and Suvarrow. It seems like it was an interesting and beautiful life, a childhood spent roaming over a sheltered island and swimming in the warm waters of the reef. Robert Dean Frisbie was a loving but difficult father, alternately inordinately strict and neglectful, taking pride in his children’s “native” appearance but wanting them to hold themselves apart from their Maori contemporaries and relatives. Frisbie writes of her father’s restlessness (which caused him to uproot his children again and again), his tortured quest to be a great writer, the tension between his love of the Cook Islands and their people and his feeling of innate superiority.

In the hands of a more skilled author it could have been a very interesting story. The conflicts caused by her father’s overbearing personality, his love and self-absorption, could have made a fascinating book in its own right, not just in relation to The Island of Desire. But Johnny Frisbie never questions the unadulterated love and hero-worship she feels for her father (at least in the first two-thirds of the book) and the result is a choppy, awkward memoir that serves only to add a little bit of color to Robert Frisbie’s unquestionably superior work. So I abandoned it, with a pang of guilt, but feeling happier for it. Life’s too short to read bad books.

Regarding life’s brevity: reading books set in the South Pacific has triggered my nostalgia for tropical life. While I was searching for photos to go with some of my Polynesian books, I stumbled across a folder of shots from 2007, when I spent eight months living in the Seychelles.

Seychelles, 2007
Seychelles, 2007

That’s a picture of my backyard. On the other side of that wall is a short rocky slope into the sea, and every day I jumped off the rocks into a garden of colorful fish and long-spined urchins where turtles picked at the sea grass in the shallows. I lived with several other scientists in a tin-roofed shack three miles up the road from the dive center. We counted eight distinct species of ants in our house, and green geckos perched on our walls at night. Our lives were in suspension there. We spent our nights drinking and our days swimming after whale sharks. When the shark season ended I went to South Africa, where I met the man who was to become my husband, and two months later I followed him to Ireland (temporarily, I thought). The factors that made me turn my back on that life–that I missed my family, that I wanted to be a part of my nephews’ lives while they were still children, that I loved my husband (though he wasn’t yet my husband then), whose career was one that couldn’t be pursued on a remote tropical island–these things still stand, and I could not leave those I love just for a life of warmth and water. If I had stayed I am sure I would have turned into an eccentric misanthropist like the other life-long expats I knew there, or like Robert Frisbie and Tom Neale. I would not have been able to outrun my depression forever, and I would, I’m sure, be longing for all the things I would have had to sacrifice in order to stay. But after nearly a decade of cold seas and grey skies, just a photo of my run-down house surrounded by frangipani trees is enough to fill my heart with yearning, and to make me wish that I could return–but only if I could suspend my life again, stop the years from passing, to know that time, when I come back, would not have moved on without me. Life is short, and youth is shorter, and there is never time to do everything we could want to do. It’s an obvious truth, but one that is difficult, difficult beyond the telling of it, to learn.

Seychelles, 2007
Seychelles, 2007
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