An Afternoon in Summer by Kathy Giuffre
Several years ago, American college professor Kathy Giuffre needed an escape. She was raising two sons alone in the midst of a complex romantic entanglement. The chance to take a year-long sabbatical from her teaching duties in Colorado, combined with her receipt of a grant to study the indigenous art of Rarotonga, led Giuffre and her boys, seven-year-old Aiden and three-year-old Tris, to what she describes as an “old white house on the edge of the sea.”
An Afternoon in Summer is her love letter to Rarotonga. With witty anecdotes Giuffre captures the minutiae and luxuriant inertia of island life: she orders a chocolate cake from the T-Shayla-J Bakery for Aiden’s birthday, but forgets to pick it up on the appointed day, Saturday, and the bakery is closed on Sundays. On Monday, when Giuffre goes to retrieve the cake, Shayla tells Giuffre she took it home to her kids:
‘”You should have called me,” she said.
‘”I didn’t know your number,” I said.
‘”You could have asked anybody,” she said. This was true. I could probably have dialled random telephone numbers and hit a cousin in three tries at most.’
In telling such stories, Giuffre risks veering into Joseph Conrad territory, that of observing and recording the natives at work and play. Look at their funny hats! Queer manner of speaking! Quaint rituals! And indeed, she admits “[s]ome of my friends in the US thought I was crazy to pack up my children . . . and head off to a place I’d never been before, a place with dengue fever and elephantiasis and dysentery . . .”
In the event, Giuffre’s attitude is one not of judgement or bemusement but of profound affection. Even as she recounts the arduous opening weeks of the family’s South Pacific sojourn, when the phone lines were constantly down, the family was living in a budget motel, and the only rental property available was furnished solely with cockroaches, there is no undertone of true despondency. Rarotonga is an adventure from the first, and Giuffre is eager to tell her reader of the blessings she encountered.
It is apparent from her descriptions of island life, which find a mysterious middle ground between present and past tense – both active and nostalgic – that part of her heart remains in the house she left behind, though she has since lived in Switzerland and the United States (and the story of how that came to be is one of the great rewards of the book).
As she introduces us to Emily, the 82-year-old Maori woman who becomes Giuffre and her sons’ saviour from the Central Motel, the two Mormon missionaries boarding with her, and the other characters who populated Giuffre’s Rarotonga, she embeds her reader in her daily life. It is easy to imagine, given the almost narcotic effect of the Pacific environment she portrays, the shock and discombobulation she felt upon her re-immersion in a frenetic American city.
The pace and structure of the book, the chapters of which are oriented more toward theme than chronology (one is titled ‘Men’, another, ‘Ghosts’, the last, ‘Goodbye’), facilitate a lyrical, romantic mood, punctuated by emotional arrivals and departures: Emily’s three-month absence, Giuffre’s father’s visit from Arkansas. It is a mood that lingers well beyond the final page.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Previously reviewed on coast.co.nz