The Sea On Our Skin by Madeleine Tobert

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The Sea On Our Skin by Madeleine Tobert

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An idyllic Pacific island and a mis-matched couple is the beginning of a story of love and hurt in a family caught between tradition and the future.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 325 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Two Roads
ISBN: 978-1444734119

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Amalie Matete woke up alone on the first day of her life as a married woman…her battered body…the bruises on her thighs. Amalie had scarcely been prepared for this. Only sixteen, she'd spent all of her time in the village and was marrying a stranger, a man who had seen her only once. But she was lucky. With no father to give her away, she was lucky to be being married at all, her mother tried to tell her. On her wedding day Amalie had been frightened by the storm. It was a bad omen she said. Just a storm, her mother said.

Iaone Matete was a sailor. A traveller. He wasn't frightened by the storm. He chose to use it. He would be married right out in it, on the beach, with the rain trammelling down and the lightning crashing. This girl would be his wife, his reason for coming back, his road to the future in the sons she would give him. But she wouldn't be a reason to stay in this god-forsaken backwater.

Moana is the village: a beautiful, idyllic, life-hard, easy-living, village at the remote disconnected end of an unidentified Pacific island. So remote is the place that for most of the novel it remains a place out of time. Rare references creep in to give a possible connection, but only towards the very end of the book does it become truly fixed to a calendar that we might recognise.

The people of Moana are islanders. Their lives and deaths and every belief in between is linked to the sea. They take their children swimming before they are born, and as soon afterwards as they can. When water comes between a son and his mother, it is a literal event as well as metaphor for crossing another kind of Rubicon.

The people of Moana are insular. Family names are repeated over and over until professions or preferences or childhood anecdotes and nicknames need be added to tell one Vete Tatafu from another. But they are also a loving people. What they have they share. It is as acceptable to take as to give. Why don't we ask them for something?. But then there is also a low level of want We don't need anything else. They are hardworking and risk-taking. Sometimes. They are firmly bound by tradition.

In this world Amalie marries Iaone. Their relationship starts as tempestuous as the seas and doesn't abate… except for the long becalmed periods when he is away, and she has her children to raise. Some of them at least. More than of Amalie, The Sea On Our Skin is the story of her children: the ones who stay, the ones who don't. It is about the lives they try to make for themselves caught in a turbulent family and in a time when the village suddenly becomes less remote. It is about people who think they can come into a place and become part of it; and those who think they need to escape a place to become who they are. It is also about how a tragedy can turn a man into something other than what he should have been, and how even an unrequited love might hold the seeds of salvation.

Scots-born Tobert spent several years in the Pacific islands before settling in Auckland with her Fijian husband, and it shows. Her island is vivid and sensuous, gorgeous and imperfect.

She has produced a bright sea green novel, sparkling with sunlight and understated wit, cut through with rip-tides of harsh life experience, dark-clouded by hurt. It's a dangerously superficial book, with a deceptively light narration style that encourages skimming rather than engagement, which could leave many readers not really caring about the characters… or even uncertain as to which character(s) to care for. As a plea to look deeper at paradise and progress, it is also potentially too subtle for some to grasp.

I enjoyed it a lot. It's not one that I can see myself reading over, because the 'how will it all turn out' is a large part of the enchantment, but for anyone who considers themselves a traveller and wonders about tradition and change and people and all of that I'd recommend it.

If you're looking for more escapes into the Pacific life, try The Marriage Proposal by Celestine Hitiura Vaite

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Buy The Sea On Our Skin by Madeleine Tobert at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sea On Our Skin by Madeleine Tobert at


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