Thursday, July 14, 2011

REVIEW: Honolulu by Alan Brennert

 Growing up in Japanese controlled Korea at the beginning of the 20th century, girls have very few options.  Regret (so named because she was not a boy) longs for independence and an education but sees nothing ahead of her but a loveless arranged marriage confined to her household for the rest of her life.  When she finds out several young women from her province have escaped this fate by offering themselves up as picture brides (potential husbands choose wives based on photographs) she decides to leave Korea and her beloved sister-in-law Blossom behind to start life anew in Hawaii.  Promised a wealthy husband and the chance at an education, when Regret arrives she and her fellow picture brides discover their grooms are older men living in poverty.  Regret tries to make due but must escape her dismal life with her abusive husband who gambles all their money away.

Adopting the name Jin, Regret runs away to Honolulu to make a new life for herself but it is a turbulent time in the island's history and a difficult one for those of Asian descent.

Honolulu starts off with Jin/Regret growing up in Korea. The book grabbed me right away because I lived in Korea for a year and many of the places that were discussed in the book I had visited.  Jin's family followed Confucian ideals which gave women a very strict and limited role in society.  It reminded me a little of the way women are treated in some middle eastern countries today. I could not blame Jin for wanting to escape the fate that awaited her there.

When Jin and her fellow picture brides arrive in Hawaii they realize that the life they will have there is not much better than what they would have faced in Korea.  I can't imagine agreeing to be married to someone based off of a photograph but then to finally meet my prospective partner and find out he is older than I thought and dirt poor?  I wouldn't have blamed all the girls for getting right back on the boat to Korea had they had the means to do so.  The story really picks up when circumstances force her to flee her husband and she finds help in the unlikeliest of places.

Honolulu also explores the division between the races in Hawaii at the time.  The law favored the whites living on the islands and there was discord among the minorities living there as well.  As with his book Moloka'i, Brennert invents an interesting and varied cast of characters.  I liked the life long bond that developed between Jin,  Jade Moon, Wise Pearl, and Beauty (her fellow picture brides).   I liked this story quite about but not as much as Moloka'i.  I think this was because the author tried to cram a little too much Hawaiian history in.  Although I find it fascinating, I find it unlikely that the main character would have had a front row seat to most of it given the circumstances she was in.  Also there were a few more slower areas in Honolulu than there were in Moloka'i-mundane things pertaining to being a seamstress and business ventures that bogged things down occasionally. Despite these few small problems I really liked the book and judging by how much I liked both of his books I think I will be picking up whatever Alan Brennert comes out with next. 

 This book is from my own personal library


  1. Great review -- new-to-me author and book so I'll look for this -- I've not read much set in Hawaii but the premise sounds great!

  2. Oh! Never heard of this one before and it sounds quite interesting. I have never read anything set in that locale before. Thanks for the review. The cover is beautiful.