The Charm Buyers

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University of Hawaiʻi Press
Lillian Howan
Softcover, 328 pp.

The Charm Buyers describes extraordinary beauty and turbulent change: Tahiti during the last years of French nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1990s.

Marc Antoine Chen, the troubled heir of black pearl cultivators, narrates his journey through a labyrinth of elusive truths. As a child, Marc lives in a dreamlike world with his great-grandmother A-tai and her stories of a semi-nomadic Hakka culture that no longer exists. The Hakka, originally brought from China to Tahiti to work in cotton in the nineteenth century, settled in communities throughout the South Pacific.

On the verge of adulthood, Marc falls in love with the calm and confident Marie-Laure Li, but when she leaves to study in France, Marc drifts, becoming the lover of the enigmatic painter Aurore du Chatelet. Years later, Marie-Laure returns, suffering from a debilitating malady―one of many illnesses surfacing in the wake of nuclear testing―and Marc is offered a strange, magical proposal in exchange for the life of his once beloved.

A supernatural, shamanic reality exists together with the traditions of the Hakka, set against the background of the French colonial past and the Ma‘ohi struggle for independence. The Charm Buyers presents a world in transition and its people―black pearl cultivators, artists, taro farmers, politicians, smugglers, and shamans.