A Beautifully Rendered Novel that Operates on Multiple Levels: Papala Skies by Stephen Geez

papalaskiescoverI’ve always wanted to visit Hawaii and I must say this book was like having a personalized grand tour. The descriptions were vivid and conjured up outstanding imagery that virtually took you there, the prose as refreshing as a frozen pina colada on a hot afternoon. Don’t let the somewhat enigmatic title and cover fool you. This story was beautifully rendered as implied, but it comprises far more than lush tropical scenery.  Thus I can easily grant it 5-stars.

This complex and compelling story is as unique as its setting. While it has numerous elements of a coming of age story and dealing with tragedy, it went much deeper and at times much darker. The main character, Rochelle, has a troubling secret which she’s carried since she was thirteen when her mother died. She blames herself for her mother’s death, something children are prone to do whether justified or not when there’s a divorce, illness or other trouble that descends upon a family. While some teens might turn to drugs or alcohol, Rochelle instead becomes an over-achiever.

Many cultures and locales come into play in this multi-faceted novel. Her deceased mother is from France, which she longs to visit; she lives in Chicago, which she loves; and her father’s business interests are centered in Hilo, Hawaii. After her mother’s death her father brings her to Hawaii where she’s introduced to her soon to be Hawaiian step-mother, Lalani, and her children, one her natural-born son, Pocamea, and another blond boy, Mikalu, from San Diego who was abandoned to Lalani’s care by his father when his mother died giving birth to him. These kids live with Lalani’s father in an ancient stone house occupied by their ancestors for centuries. Running water is provided by a stream beset with waterfalls, the beach is within view below an inviting cliff with the orange glow of a volcano completing the picture. But the tropical, idyllic beauty is not without its shadows.

Native burial traditions by which the children of the land are returned to Pele are described in fascinating detail as their earthly remains are taken into the bowels of the land referred to as lava tubes. Rochelle, while so much an ambitious city girl, bonds with her step-brothers and falls in love with Coulee Makai as their homestead is called. But just as one major story element is resolved and you think the story is about to end, a swell of intrigue bursts upon the scene like a tsunami, pushing the story in an entirely different direction. Even in this primitive, idyllic land there are those who conspire to destroy it through development and commercialization through whatever means necessary. Death and crippling diseases fall upon some of the characters, Rochelle at the center where her loyalties are put on virtual trial in such a way that her life is on the line when she chooses sides.

Far more is confronted in this brilliant novel than the challenge of overcoming the death of a loved one, the complexities of family loyalty, or friendships stronger than blood ties. There is a well-sustained sense of mystery throughout as Rochelle’s life unfolds amid an initially alien culture of which she gradually becomes a part, driving choices which eventually deliver her to the last place she expected to be. Not only are the characters real but their lives and interactions as well. The level of detail makes you feel as if you know these individuals personally. You cry when they pass on and and will miss the others as you would a close friend when the story ends.

The one thing I found a bit disconcerting at first was how in the first third or so of the story it kept jumping back and forth between when Rochelle was in her teens to when she was a young college graduate from MIT with an engineering degree. Eventually, however, it all fit together like a Chinese puzzle, somehow “working” very effectively in a literary sense by creating a sense of depth reminiscent of how one might remember parts of his or her life as they had relevance, which rendered an entirely different texture than if the story had proceeded in linear fashion chronologically.

This story was chock full of themes, subplots, human nature and complicated relationships that bordered on being epic or perhaps one huge chunk of a family saga. The ending was satisfying enough to serve as a conclusion but there’s a tremendous amount of material begging for prequels and delving into the backgrounds of the different characters. I highly recommend this story as a great read to anyone looking for an intriguing, well-written story that will undoubtedly take you places you’ve never been before, even if you’ve been to Hawaii.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon here.

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