If you're looking for stories of tropical paradise, this is not the book! These are powerful, uncomfortable, and some downright shocking vignettes
of life in the South Seas in the early part of the twentieth century.
Maugham led a diverse life, working in many different services, including that of a spy. He traveled extensively and spent time in the South Sea Islands, and so these colorful pieces were written from first hand experience. There are six stories in all, plus two descriptive paragraphs. The first two have truly disturbing endings, and are both told in an objective manner so the reader doesn't know how the narrator feels about the characters, even though, no doubt, the reader has formed their own strong opinion.
Rain is about two couples who have met on a boat en route to Apia, Samoa: two missionaries, the Davidsons, and Dr. Macphail and his wife. Davidson is a hellfire and brimstone kind of Christian, and makes it known there is nothing he won't do to seek out sinners and purge them. The boat is forced to stay at the miserable island of Pago-Pago, where the rain is pelting down incessantly in sheets, as is usual for that time of the year. An outbreak of measles at Apia means they will not be able to continue their journey for ten days.
Mrs. Macphail has become friends with the Davidsons, but the doctor would prefer other company. The Davidsons talk incessantly about how they, on their island, have forbidden the native ways of life, including dance and the normal clothing the indigenous people wear because it is "sinful." When their flock refuses to obey, they have cruel punishments that makes those who stray rethink their stubbornness. But a prostitute named Sadie Thompson changes everything, and proves to be too much of a challenge to Davidson.
This story has also been adapted for several films.
In Mackintosh, we encounter a silent and fomenting hatred between that man and his superior, Walker, a fat and disgusting creature who has control of the entire island and has the obedience of all the people with little effort. Walker looks upon himself as a loving father to the entire island, and doesn't seem to find a problem with the cruelty in which he deals with those who disobey. He assumes Mackintosh feels that same love for him that he also assumes the natives feel for him. A lot of assumptions here for a conceited old man. This story's ending is most unexpected!
The Fall of Edward Barnard is a tongue-in-cheek face-off between the frantic dog-eat-dog stress of city life and a life of leisure and beauty in the South Sea Islands. Edward Barnard gets a temporary job in the islands to build his fortune and marry the woman of his dreams. While Isabel patiently awaits his return, suddenly Chicago doesn't look all that great to Edward, and those native girls sure are pretty. . . .
Red is a story of passionate love between a native girl and an extremely beautiful Englishman. They are unbelievably happy until he is lured onto a boat. She awaits his return, then scornfully marries a well-educated Swede who loves her deeply. She cares little for him, and continues to long for the return of Red. Oh my! This one is truly acerbic.
The Pool has a similar theme; a Scot who marries a beautiful native, but the result in this one is tragedy and sadness through and through.
Honolulu is a comical story about a bit of voodoo in the Hawaiian Islands. This one, as in the previous story is told in the first person. In Honolulu, especially, it almost seems as if it may have been a tale that was actually related to Maugham.
These are really awesome little pieces. W. Somerset Maugham had an extraordinary gift for storytelling and the ability to bring to life the most unique characters. Well worth reading!
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