ISLAND SONG by Alan Chin
Publisher: Zumaya Publications, LLC (September 8, 2008)
Alan Chin’s Island Song is many things: exotic, spiritual, lyrical, and lovely. The author’s visual touch when he word-paints a scene in Hawaii is so lush as to almost overwhelm the senses. I have a soft spot for books that are beautifully written but which do more than entertain; they actually teach the reader something. Island Song does this. And does it in such a way that it’s unobtrusive, as when Song, the beautiful young Hawaiian, explains to Garrett the interconnectedness of all life.
The first chapter is one of the most evocative I have read for a long time. An old man chants a plea to the island gods, and as he does the young man with him sees something eerie and frightening, something that may not be there, and he feels brushed by an all-encompassing Power. The old man is called Grandfather by all, and is the spiritual leader of the island. The young man is Songoree, destined for and being trained to walk the same path Grandfather has taken, to take his place eventually. In the same way other faiths have waited for promised leaders, they are waiting the being called the Speaker. He is to be what St. Paul was to Christians. Who he is, where he may come from, whether he is young or old, no one knows. Grandfather just knows that he will come.
In the meantime, Garrett Davidson, a Californian who has never recovered emotionally from the AIDS-related death of Marc, his life-partner, is seeking a place where he can be alone with his grief and the depression that has led to chronic, severe pain in his head. His goal is to write about Marc and their life together. The story of Island Song is one of the physical, mental, and emotional recovery of this man, and his awakening to new love and spirituality. A large part of his recovery is the unexpected and unwanted love he comes to feel for the exuberantly innocent and alive Songoree, beloved by the islanders, and called Song. Never has a character had a more apt name, because his whole being is a song of existence.
However, the author is not one to let the reader rest peacefully on the flow of his prose. Several times, when least expected, something startling bursts to the surface: homophobia, which runs like an undercurrent beneath the story; a startling backstory trip to a San Francisco gay bathhouse; a stunning suicide; a violent bar fight. Chin’s facility with description is faultless, whether he is writing about the exquisite beauty to be found below the surface of the sea or relating the grit of life.
I also very much like the way Chin handled the scenes of making love. They were very well done; they were graphic without being gross; they came at the proper place in the story; and they were never thrown in just to be titillating. And best of all they were, truly, scenes of physical love in the fullest sense of the word.
Characterization is mixed. Garrett, Song, and Grandfather are as beautifully realized as figures in a Renaissance painting. You come to know them intimately and they are unforgettable. I wish the character of Audrey had been fleshed out a little bit more, and three of the characters—Owen, his lover Micah the rebellious preacher’s son, and Micah’s father the homophobic preacher—are close to being stereotypes. Owen and Micah, though likable, seem to always to be scampering holding hands. (They don’t, actually, but that’s the impression I was left with.)
The only real quibbles are more “quibs” than “quibbles,” things that personally put me off a tad. First was the style, which was present verb tense. I have never liked books written in the present tense, but because Island Song is so well done I was able to ignore the tense…until the first flashback. Because the flashbacks were also in present tense, I then became distractingly aware of the tense. The other issue more than likely bothered me because of the “I wouldn’t have written it that way” syndrome common to novelists who write reviews. The final two chapters, while pleasant, felt tacked on like an afterthought, and read more like the first two chapters of a sequel. (I hope there is one!) I felt that the last words in the book should have been the end of Chapter 30: “All things begin within the density of silence.” That is so profound and so in keeping with the general feeling of the story, it (to me) just seems more apt.
At the risk of repeating myself, Island Song is a wonderful debut novel. I have never left the Midwest, but with his artistry Alan Chin took my heart and mind to Hawaii. Island Song is very highly recommended.
I invite you to go to the “Conversations With Authors” page, and sit down with Alan Chin and me for a conversation about the book and his life. This is the first of a series of conversations I will be doing with authors.