I am presently sitting five cables off this island, Tristan da Cunha, wallowing on the swells on a small boat that is hove-to just off the mole at the entrance to the harbor of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, the island’s capital and only settlement. But while my fellow passengers will soon be landing—once the easterly gale blows itself out and the seas die down to an acceptable level—and so are excitedly preparing themselves to enjoy the fascinations that Edinburgh has in store (a visit to the fields where the islanders grow potatoes being the main advertised attraction), I will not be joining them.
For I have been sternly and staunchly forbidden to land. The Island Council of this half-forgotten outpost of the remaining British Empire has for the last quarter century declared me a Banned Person. I am welcome on Tristan neither today nor, indeed, as was succinctly put to me in a diplomatic telegram last year, “ever.”
An estimated 48 million Americans become sick each year because of something they ate. Annually, over 3,000 die because of contaminated food. Both numbers are projected to rise in the coming decade, along with our reliance on imported food. And here’s the irony: A big reason for that increase is that we’ve developed healthier eating habits. On average, we eat 14 percent more fruits and vegetables than we did in 1970. We’re eating beet greens with bee pollen and drinking kale-and-date smoothies. And those foods — which is to say fresh foods — are the very hardest to police, particularly when they come from overseas.
Across the seven decades and three generations encompassed by the novel, Thien writes with the mastery of a conductor who is as in command of the symphony’s tempo as she is attuned to the nuances of each individual instrument. For the reader, as well as Marie, fragmentary details slowly accrue, as if polyphonically, manifesting a central theme of the book: that life does not proceed according to a linear chronology so much as it “spirals closer and closer to a shifting center.” Instead of moving forward, it swirls on continual reiterations of the past.