A woman is waiting at Auckland International Airport for her parents to arrive. She thinks of them impatiently: “Dad off on his walks, and Mum busy with her cousins, her friends, her legions of family.” Adam is on an island somewhere in the Pacific, desperate to get home – his younger daughter, Naomi, is very sick, and he longs to be with her, but things keep obstructing his departure. Eve looks back on her life and her relationships. She is the daughter of a missionary to Samoa who never went back to England. Eve never wanted, and still doesn’t want, to leave the place of her birth, but she determines she must help Adam leave her island – her paradise.
Both Feet in Paradise is an extraordinarily powerful portrait of a man, Adam. His story is told in four sections, with the second and last told from Adam’s point of view. These parts are reminiscent of Ishiguro’s superb The Unconsoled, with the reader struggling to decipher what is going on as the protagonist’s world starts to make less and less sense. Adam remembers the Sagrada Familia in Paris, and he wonders if it was lira he and his wife used as currency there; warped memories of Parisian trips are frequent through the narrative. As are periods of panic as Adam remembers his younger daughter’s illness – her bleeding nose having been the first warning sign.
Adam has nightmare visions of another man usurping him as husband to Ruth, as father to Naomi and his elder daughter, Natalie. Time is Adam’s enemy; when he misses his flight, he scrambles to make new arrangements. But there doesn’t seem to be a working airport on the island. He remembers the general details of many international trips, but not the specifics of how he got to this island. He knows he has visited many countries, but his passport is blank. He starts losing all evidence of his planned flight, documents that would help him re-book. He sees a stranger behind a doorway: “an older man, unshaven, with a scuffed black Nike cap wedged on his head” – it is his reflection.
Everything is alien and unknown to Adam, but also oddly familiar. There are many people who appear helpful, but don’t help. And then he meets Eve – Adam’s temptress, his bully, his only friend. She is ominous, overly familiar, very presuming. When Adam’s credit cards start being declined, she is his saviour. He confides in her; he is an entomologist studying the local butterflies, he urgently needs to get home. He needs to phone his wife to explain why he wasn’t on the plane when she was waiting at the airport, but whenever he gets through it is someone else on the line – always the same person – “I think the world’s gone mad.”
The third section of Both Feet in Paradise is Eve’s story. Her tale is one of powerlessness but contentment. She visited Aotearoa to train as a nurse, and once home she never wanted to leave again. She was manipulated by someone, and the result was a daughter, Naomi. An engineer working on a dam enters her life, and takes her to New Zealand, to Paris. He is good with Naomi, but repeatedly puts her in danger. A nosebleed is an indication that one misadventure is potentially life threatening. Eve lives with the traditional stories of the island, one of which is of Sina who befriends a young eel, who grows and relentlessly pursues her. But Eve is afa Igilisi – as well as the traditional stories, she also understands the “humourless pālagi logic”.
Eve is fascinated by Tusitala Robert Louis Stevenson, a pālagi who visited Samoa and never left. When Eve’s daughter Naomi and her partner Rob visit, they have problems leaving. Her father never left. And of course, there’s Adam. Where do people belong? Where is home? When our lives move on, through choice or trauma, how accurate are our memories? “I’ve never been good with numbers.” Many of Adam’s memories circle around the circumstances of key events in his life – meeting Ruth, Naomi’s birth. Tusitala is a word for storyteller, and Both Feet in Paradise considers where stories come from, and how we can become lost in them.
The descriptions of Samoa are at once peaceful and beautiful, and dark and menacing. There are waterfalls and lush flora, but also the feral dogs that snap and threaten once you leave the town environs – “Why are they so aggressive?”. The imagery of the Garden of Eden helps the warping reality – Eve initially appearing as a seductive temptress, “Don’t worry. We’ll work something out.” Her taking Adam to her favourite places on the island. Him taking her to his butterfly grove – where she is bitten by a ‘snake’. Adam’s situation is one that many novels have attempted to deal with, and for me it is one of the most moving and convincing portrayals: “Yet sadly, no longer am I a part of my own life. Somehow I’ve become lost. No matter how hard I try, I can’t return.” A poignant and haunting book.