Both Feet in Paradise by Andy Southall (The Cuba Press, 2021), 350pp, $37
Andy Southall’s Both Feet in Paradise is a disorientating read, in turn travelogue, mystery and suspense thriller. But by the time we close the book’s covers, we realise that this disorientation is precisely the point. Divided into three sections, each named after a character within the novel and told from their perspective, it begins with Naomi, a young woman listlessly waiting for her parents to arrive at the airport. We never get to see them walk through the gates as Naomi’s narrative is truncated by Adam’s. We’re with Naomi drinking beers under the heaving fluorescent lights of a sterile airport bar, then we are plunged into the bright light of the tropical idyl of Sāmoa with Adam.
Southall drew inspiration for the setting from a three-month stay in Sāmoa, and the book moves around the islands of Upolu and Savai’i. It was during his stay that Southall became in awe of the expanse of ocean that surrounded the islands. So, when a digger ruptured the main pipeline carrying jet fuel to Tāmaki Makaurau and cancelled many of the flights in and out of the country, he wondered: What would it be like to be stuck in paradise, when all you want to do is get out? This is the inspiration for the novel and how it begins and we quickly realise all is not as idyllic as it should be.
Adam has been in Sāmoa for three months working as a lepidopterist—a scientist who studies butterflies and moths. But he is desperate to be reunited with his wife and two daughters, the youngest, Naomi, the survivor of recent cancer treatment. Rather than stay on the smaller island, which everyone has suggested, he makes to return to Aotearoa. As we start to understand more about Adam—his story given to us in drips—questions percolate. Are we in flashback? Is Adam’s young Naomi the same Naomi we met in the first section of the book? But there is no time for answers; all we know is that Adam has to leave, and as we follow his numerous panicked attempts to depart Sāmoa, we watch as all his efforts are thwarted. At first travel agents aren’t open, the internet cafés are unreliable and, with ‘island time’ ruining each of his plans, we come to assume he is just another Aucklander frustrated with a pace of life he’s not accustomed to. He is a butterfly caught in a net. Southall writes:
Everything ran on a different time here. The big colourful buses. The pick-up trucks with workmen standing in the back like bowling pins … No one ever hurried. It was too hot to hurry, to do anything quickly.
But after lost passports and maxed-out credit cards become a common occurrence, and the phone number he uses to call home is now wrong, his thoughts meander in circles. Adam morphs into a modern-day Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it fall back down at his feet again.
Throughout it all, Southall is a master of suspense, gratifying our smaller questions with answers a few pages later but withholding the bigger ones. We have a lingering sense of concern as the mystery takes hold: Who is Naomi? Will Adam get off the island? Why can’t he reach home? In one of the most suspenseful moments of the book, Adam has to reach the ferry—the only one of the day—that will take him to the only island with an airport. Despite the circumstances that throw up more roadblocks, he manages to slip onto it just in time and we cheer along with him.
Southall keeps the pace moving, which in turn keeps the reader turning pages. And despite Adam’s confused state, or our confusion at why he can’t sort it all out, we’re on his side throughout his nightmare. Perhaps it’s the setting, or the heat that drips on the pages. Perhaps it’s the other characters here too. With her tapping fingernails, Adam’s strict landlord—Madam Blanc—is almost Lynchian in quirk, adding to this feverish reality.
And when the mysterious and aptly named Eve happens to save Adam’s fate by paying for his restaurant bill and inviting him to stay at her place, we come to the third section of the book, where many of our bigger questions are answered.
It is through Eve that the novel really begins to sing, unfettered by Adam’s continual desire to get off the island and the anxiety that infiltrates his story. Instead, the pace of Eve’s narrative is much slower—we get a more rounded view of Adam that explains his absent-mindedness and awkwardness, as well as descriptions of Eve’s beloved island home—and now we see everything from a new view. There are vivid passages of the lush beauty that surrounds her, as if she absorbs every moment. She notes to herself the difference between her and Adam’s perspectives:
They were as different as they could be, two halves of a creature that had never been joined. She swam with the faith of a turtle, honouring her past, upholding her ancestors, he ran with the haste of a centipede, believing in nothing apart from his own fast-footed pragmatism.
It is through Eve that Adam’s character and the personality of the island are given their multiplicity. And it is in this that the reader is most challenged. We can see how we’ve been made to look at Adam in Eve’s Sāmoa, and to look at Eve in his world. The question is: Is it through other’s eyes that we get a more accurate image, a truer sense of who the characters are? Because—as if to exemplify Adam’s angst around trying to catch the ferry—the other moment of gripping anxiety in the novel comes when Eve is in Adam’s homeland, holidaying at his request under a towering snowy mountain. Just as Adam’s experience of time slowing down and the overwhelming Sāmoan heat, here—in a place that he finds most majestic—Eve feels threatened to be swallowed up. Where Adam finds cheer, Eve finds the looming shadows of the landscape ominous. And as if the setting is not enough to create that fear in her, Eve must also face a heart-stopping moment of dread. Under the mountain’s gaze, she must cross a swinging bridge to reach Adam and her baby. But this is not just any circumstance of ‘catch up’; she must make it, step by step, across this perilous bridge, amidst her swirling vertigo, to make it to her baby, whose cries she can hear on the other side of the bridge. The rhythm of Eve’s panic brings rising angst for the reader as she takes each step across the dubious bridge to her screaming baby.
In this section we realise, also, that the disorientation Southall has created throughout the novel is not only the disorientation that comes with the adventure of travelling in a new country. It is an intrinsic part of the adventure of getting to know someone we love, our past and future selves. What Southall seems to be saying is that to have both feet in paradise, no matter what corner of the world you’re in, is really a matter of perspective. What you do with it—how you navigate the world as it unfolds before you, making choices along the way—is what matters. As Eve says to Adam when she rescues him at the restaurant:
You know it’s only paradise if you want it to be? If you want to make it hell, it can be that too.
SHANA CHANDRA is an Aotearoa freelance writer of Indo-Fijian and girmit descent. She is currently based in France, where she works in magazine and digital publishing industries worldwide. She has a Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of Technology in Sydney and is working on her debut novel, Banjara, a fictional retelling of her ancestors’ journey from India to Fiji as indentured labourers.