After two decades as a book critic, there are only two things I can absolutely smell: a writer who is in it for the money and one who has spent the best years of his or her life in water. Susanna Moore isn’t in it for money. She is too odd, and she floats.
There’s another aspect to Moore’s writing, especially her nonfiction about Hawaii. In her new memoir, “Light Years,” there’s a sense of opium dreams, of floating back into memories with an unsentimental wistfulness. Hard edges prevail: Her mother has breakdowns; she dies when Moore is 12. Friends drown. Some of it is a hardness I have seen in the very wealthy (not new money, which requires juggling, but old money, which breeds a certainty). It’s as if not having to scramble for money allows a layer to be peeled from the screen that separates us from the truth about things.
Moore, born in 1945, spent her childhood in the 1950s and ‘60s in Hawaii. Her family was well-to-do, and the details of the wealth, as she well knows, are fascinating, glinting little things: the clothes, the houses, the “sterling silver food pushers, like little hoes, to use before a knife was mastered, and tiny correspondence cards engraved with my initials.” But there were greater luxuries.
A childhood full of freedom, mainly: not having to wear shoes until the sixth grade, a pet spider on a string, driving one’s infant sister around in a bike basket, growing up in a rain forest, driving a jeep around the islands at 13. And perhaps an even greater luxury: the presence of myth, everywhere the spirits of things, the songs of Hawaii, the kings, queens, gods and goddesses, not to mention the contents of the local library. Hers was a “Cherry Orchard” childhood.
There were downsides: a “hierarchical, snobbish and quietly racist society.” “Although the Hawaiians were admired and even idealized, there was little interest in Hawaiian culture.” And there was loss, in the form of greedy, ugly developments that ravaged the landscape in Moore’s lifetime. These, unlike breakdowns and emotion, were things you could talk about but didn’t.
“Light Years” is full of excerpts from Melville, Thoreau, Pliny, Darwin, Conrad, Herodotus, Isabella Bird and others. These are bits and pieces about the sea, about shipwrecks and drowning and the raw power of the ocean -- of being engulfed, spit out and curled up by waves. “Once I left the islands, as a young woman, my life in the ocean was ended. . . . The sea became a matter of summer holidays, and resorts out of season. Never the same. And I was never the same for it.”
Perhaps never the same, but the sea trickled into Moore’s style, roiled around in her thinking. Hold this little memoir up to your ear like a seashell and you’ll hear it, easy.