The first novel by author Lois Ann Yamanaka
. Although the title suggests some twisted fantasy a burgeoning fifth-grade Hannibal Lecter
has been nurturing, Wild Meat
isn't about turning toughies into ground beef, but rather is a series of bittersweet
episodes in the life of Lovey Nariyoshi of Hilo, Hawaii. Another poignant coming-of-age novel, you groan? But this one is different, Lovey is one of the most heart-rendingly real characters to come along in a lifetime. Yamanaka's gift is in giving Lovey such a distinct voice that you begin to forget you are reading a novel instead of listening to a young raconteur
Lovey, our narrator, speaks in the dialect of the Hawaiian islands, commonly called "pidgin"; this gives Wild Meat its distinctive and very real voice. The rhythms and sounds of the language are much softer than mainland american colloquial english, and lull the reader into a nostalgic, dreamlike state. Lest you think the book is just some sweet paean to youth, it is not that. At turns brutal, frightening and melancholy, Wild Meat charts the growing pains of a girl who desperately wants to be someone else.
Lovey Nariyoshi is a chubby japanese-american girl who speaks pidgin and lives in the lot houses; she wants to be a blond, blue-eyed caucasian girl with a trim figure who speaks "haole talk" and lives in the "perfect haole house". The dichotomy between Lovey's reality and her fantasy life serves as the conflict for much of the book. Lovey and her best friend Jerry, a willowy, feminine boy who also desperately wants to fit in, navigate a world tinged with hostility from their classmates, and at times their own families. Lovey and Jerry have a fierce love for each other that comes from being ostracized. Their exploits, fights and adventures offer comic moments and lighthearted fun to leaven the unhappiness that Lovey often feels.
A series of little tragedies and tiny victories mark the passing of time in Wild Meat. Most of Lovey's triumphs are pyhrric and her losses leave her more wounded than before. Despite this, she shows an amazing inner strenght and resilience that the people in her family have always had. Her father grew up on a sugar plantation and had a promising future in school despite his being looked down on for speaking pidgin, but ended up in the lot houses. Quiet about their loses and determined not only to survive but to make it, the Nariyoshis often do things that to make or save money that seem more trouble than they're worth. Hunting and killing their own meat to keep from paying store prices, picking Macadamia nuts off of rocky, uncomfortable ground, illegally buring old wire for the copper are a few examples of things they do to help fill the coffers.
Their struggles to continue are in stark contrast to the lush beauty of their surroundings. The wonders of nature are not ignored. The lush foliage, beautifully plumed birds and the smells and sounds of Hawaii are a rich backdrop to the unfolding story. Anthuriums and orchids grow near lychee trees, koi swim in lotus covered ponds and pueo and 'io take flight. The breathtaking beauty that Lovey seems to take for granted underscores the tragic beauty of her own life, which she desperately longs to escape.
Yamanaka's book is not perfect. The episodic nature of the chapters often give the reader the feeling that he is reading several excellent short stories, and not a novel. Several of the supporting characters, most notably Jenks and Calhoon, are not fully fleshed out. But the problems with Yamanaka's first novel are few and are far outweighed by its beauty and power.