September 2006

Arts & Letters

‘Tuvalu’ by Andrew O’Connor

By Zora Simic

A young man named Noah goes to Japan and ekes out a threadbare existence teaching English in cubicles to pay for his room in a rambling hostel overflowing with cats and cast-off people. He has a companionable relationship with another Australian, Tilly (short for Matilda), who has the requisite freckles and farm back home. This is disrupted by a dalliance with a rich, beautiful and eccentric Japanese woman who lives in a luxury hotel with a sweeping view of Tokyo. Her name is Mami Kateka, and she speaks and acts as though she has escaped from a Banana Yoshimoto novel. So far, so Vogel-award-winning. Yet, pleasingly, Andrew O'Connor's debut novel is much more beguiling and ambitious than any quick sketch of its narrative suggests.

At first, it is hard to be absorbed by Noah's various minor predicaments. Potential plot developments announce themselves, only to wander off shortly afterwards. A few improbable conversations take place. Japan could be anywhere. Then, "a moment later", Noah finds himself overwhelmed: "There were literally thousands of people surrounding me and I wanted to linger, to peer into one window after another. But the idea of skulking on the edge of other people's happiness only exacerbated my loneliness." Noah is not a rake, nor an adventurer. He really doesn't know what to do with his life, and it is to O'Connor's credit that the reader really begins to care.

Tuvalu refers to a Pacific paradise, claimed as a special place by somebody for whom paradise proves impossible. It also gradually reveals itself to be the ideal title for a coming-of-age story that is traced with surprising and delicate gravitas by O'Connor. We are left hoping that Noah's self-exile is only a temporary condition.

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