Tuesday 8 October 2013

Past on Paper: 1970s YA REVIEW - 'Koh Tabu', Ann Kelley (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Fourteen-year-old Bonnie MacDonald couldn't be more excited for a camping trip on an island off the coast of Thailand with her fellow Amelia Earhart Cadets-the daughters of the men and women stationed there during the Vietnam War. But when a strong current deposits the girls on what their boatman calls the "forbidden island," things take a turn for the worse. What once seemed like a vacation in paradise has become a battle against the elements (Synopsis from Goodreads)

Gosh, this is a tricky one to review. But I shall try. You know that problem I was pondering in my last Past on Paper review? The one about whether to judge these books on how well they use their historical context? (I may have put it in a slightly more rambling, less coherent way). Well, this could perhaps be used as an example of not using your historical context to the best effect. Gah, I so wanted to love this one, because it sounded fantastic - a group of girls marooned on a far-flung Thai island in 1974. Doesn't it sound fantastic? 

Koh Tabu.Back to that old historical context thing. One of the many things that interested me about this was the time period, but if I hadn't known it was set in the 1970s, I'm not sure I would have been able to pin it down. Ok, so yes, it was set on a baron desert island, and they're not famous for their availability of cultural references, but there was very little in the voices or actions of some of the characters that felt like it they might stem from this time period specifically - more of just a general nod to the past. And I would have loved some more references to the historical events of the time too - how the war was impacting on them in particular - there were a few hints of family dramas, but this was very much a story about their current, more immediate crisis.

I think that might have been the problem, in that I was expecting so much and it just felt liked it lagged in a few areas. The story of adolescents stranded on a desert island isn't necessarily a new one, but the mention of it still promises so much drama and tension. Unfortunately, I didn't really get too much of this here. There are incredibly dramatic and sometimes tragic incidents, but I just wanted more emotion and build up. They seemed to just...happen. I've read a few books recently that have used a diary format to tell a story and I'm starting to think that this might be my problem - a lot of the immediacy of the events has been sacrificed to keep this method authentic and I don't think it really works for me as a reader.

That said, there are still some very surprising, unusual and memorable developments, including one rather beautiful, evocative encounter with a stranger, and Bonnie is an engaging guide who is fully aware of her own shortcomings as well as those of her companions. 

In some ways, this is a brilliant, original idea for a YA and the sheer nature of the girls' predicament kept me turning the pages until the end. But this didn't really work for me as a historical novel, or a particularly thrilling one.

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