Rating 3 stars
Under Solomon Skies is Berni Sorga-Millwood’s first novel. It’s an environmental story that describes the devastating effects of global operations exploiting the Solomon Islands’ natural resources and the wider impact of climate change. Sorga-Millwood has drawn on her experience of living and working in the Solomon Islands as a teacher with VSO in writing the novel. Jacaranda published Under Solomon Skies last year as part of its Twenty in 2020 collaboration with Words of Colour Productions to publishing twenty Black British writers in one year.
The story opens with a focus on Jack, a young man who moves from job to job and who has been stung by a fraudster and lost his savings, and Toni, the older brother of one of Jack’s school friends, who has set up a boat courier service around the islands. Jack needs money, so takes Toni up on his offer of a day’s work, ferrying a teacher from Harapa on Shortland Island to Toumoa on Fauro Island, to the north of the Solomons.
Things go wrong on the journey back, and the two men end up adrift at sea. The tail end of a cyclone makes it impossible to row back to land, and their boat drifts out into the Solomon Sea.
At first, they are hopeful that a fishing boat will find them and help them back to shore, but as they realise how far out to sea they are, they begin to understand that they might not make it back.
The men talk to fill the silence and get to know each other better. They fall into serious topics that each then tries to steer away from to prevent tension building. Toni is from a village on Malaita Island that has been swallowed up by the ocean, thanks to the effects of global warming. He talks about his family moving away from the coast and no longer being able to earn money as fishermen. From the boat, they see evidence out at sea of the trade in shark fins, as the rotting body of a de-finned shark floats up to the boat, raising questions about over fishing and unnecessary hunting.
Sorga-Millwood uses their predicament as the ground to build her story on. The novel jumps around a bit, and would have benefitted from more structure. It’s a good story, but rough around the edges in presentation.
Sorga-Millwood draws out the themes of loss of traditional culture and ways of life and the impact of climate change without lecturing. She uses her characters to humanise these issues. Jack is the narrator of the opening section and Part One, and we hear his observations on being stranded before moving on to his memories around growing up.
In Part One, Jack tells us about his high school days, on Kolombangara Island, where he becomes friends with Casper, Toni’s younger brother, and enters into various money making schemes with him. School life is tough, without much food or many creature comforts, and earning money outside school is the only way to make life easier. Toni and his friends use their Malaitan heritage to entertain Australian tourists. Casper and Jack use theirs to make souvenirs that they sell to hotels and at markets in Gizo, on the nearby Ghizo Island.
Traditional culture isn’t portrayed as always being a good thing. The description of a dolphin hunt to acquire the dolphin teeth necessary to pay a bride price was stomach churning. Jack recalls the first one he ever saw as a boy and reflects on the impact this tradition has had on dolphin populations.
We follow Jack from school to his first job on a logging plantation and then on to a second logging job on Shortland Island. Here Jack becomes friends with Danni and begins to build a life for himself, gaining promotions at work and saving money for his future. Keen to be independent of his family, Jack decides to invest his savings in a diving shop, with the brother of another schoolfriend.
From his reminiscences, we learn about Jack’s family situation back home, where his relationship with his younger brother is strained, and about the impact of multinational corporations exploiting the natural resources of the Solomon Islands while controlling the lives of the Islands’ citizens through their arbitrary employment decisions. We also learn about tensions between island populations as moving around for work brings people into closer contact, bringing with it culture clashes, and how the impact of the oil and logging operations destroys traditional ways of life as well as the ecosystem of the islands.
Eventually, the logging job ends and Jack simultaneously discovers that his diving shop business partner has disappeared. He returns home to find that he’s been ripped off and his previous two years’ hard work has been for nothing. He goes back to Harapa for Danni’s wedding and ends up staying. Danni is Toni’s cousin and his wedding brings Jack and Toni back together. This brings us to the point where the book opens.
Part Two switches between a third person narrative of Danni and other family and friends of the pair trying to work out what has happened to Jack and Toni, and Jack’s day by day narrative on the stranded boat. This is the most gripping part of the story, as searches are carried out and the stricken pair find ways to survive their predicament. Sorga-Millwood keeps things pacy. Her interest in the environment prompts plot points such as Toni knowing that the small island the boat runs aground on isn’t on a shipping route because no debris washes up on the shore. The littering of the ocean delivers up a feast of discarded food further into the ordeal, as the two men go back out to sea in the hope of encountering another boat.
Things turn out okay in the end. The men are rescued, but Jack experiences longer lasting after effects than Toni, and the book ends with him reflecting on the stress he’s been under.
It’s not a perfect book. The writing and editing need a bit more polish, especially copy editing the text to pick up on spelling and other inconsistencies. However, it is a gripping story, and I found it easy to read, sitting in the sunshine on Easter Friday in pandemic Britain, imagining myself in the South Pacific, hopping between islands with its cast of characters. I learnt a whole lot about a nation and a way of life that I knew nothing about before I read this book.
I think it’s important that a book like this exists and is widely read. What I perceive as its flaws, from my position of privilege, mostly stem from the inequalities in British society that impact on education. Jacaranda are representing writers who would otherwise have difficulty being picked up by publishers, due to the same inequalities. I enjoyed reading something in a different, less conventional literary voice. We need more publishers like Jacaranda to add vitality and variety to the literary landscape.