The advantage of following blogs that are all about reading is that they unofficially serve as recommendation sources for books that you have yet to read. Therefore, when I came across Ryka Aoki’s “He Mele A Hilo” as someone’s favorite magical realist novel for 2015, I knew immediately that this was a book I knew I had to read.
Set on the Big Island of Hawai’i in the small community of Hilo, the novel follows a number of characters as they make their ways in life, by means of identity searches, motivations, beliefs, and, of course, hula. We are introduced to characters like Nona Watanabe; a woman who likes dancing hula and making the best-tasting chicken, and yet finds herself at odds when it comes to her widowed boyfriend, Harry. We get to know Noelani Choi, a hula instructor who wants to have her halau to do a show about the life of Jesus Christ, despite it sounding completely crazy to others. We meet Steve and Lisa Yates, a wealthy couple new to the community who actually contribute a lot; in ways that go beyond just generous donations. We follow Kamakawiwo’ole (a.k.a. Kam) Schulman, formerly Mel Schulman, who also just moved to Hawaii from the mainland, who’s in search of something he can’t quite identify, but hopes that joining the local band Ku’uipos might widen his scope.
These characters, as well as others, make up the community of Hilo. Together with conversations in pidgin, plate lunches, meditations on what it means to be Hawaiian, and magical occurrences, “He Mele A Hilo” is surely one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
Just from the first 50 pages alone, I had a feeling that I was in for something special. Aoki has written such a unique story, with just as unique characters, who melded into each others’ stories naturally, without it becoming a train wreck in process. By having the characters mingle and help each other out, the journey of going from one place and ending at another became a shared experience.
I also loved the fact that the writing was heavy with pidgin, for it really sounded like I was listening to a local speak (but then again, given the fact that Aoki is from Hawaii, that would make sense). I found it wise of her to include a glossary filled with words and phrases that are common out on the islands, and despite referring to it every now again, half the time, I didn’t need it. The way the text was written really felt natural; enough to where the sentences alone helped define the words.
I liked the inclusion and significance of food in the story; with mentions of musubi, malasadas, adobo, and Nona’s famous chicken being mentioned enough times to where you want to go and have some right now. It was also wise of the author to incorporate the thoughts about the future of Hawaii; in particular how traditions are going to survive and who will carry them on. It really is a pressing issue that us mainlanders often don’t think twice about, but Aoki delicately touched on it in a way where it was thoughtfully done.
Of course, I have my share of critiques; such as secondary characters that, I felt, didn’t need to be fleshed out to the extent that they were. Also, in reference to the source of how I first heard about the novel, I honestly wouldn’t call it a magical realist novel. Yes, there were instances of something surreal happening, but not to the extent as a Haruki Murakami novel.
Overall, “He Mele a Hilo” is the first novel in a while that I would give it a 5 out of 5 stars. It’s a book I will definitely read again, and one I would recommend for anyone who wants a really well written, authentic read about the people of modern-day Hawaii.