The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost

>> Tuesday, May 29, 2012

TITLE: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
AUTHOR: J. Maarten Troost

PAGES: 272

SETTING: The South Pacific
TYPE: Non fiction

At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost—who had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs—decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of dropping everything and moving to the ends of the earth was irresistibly romantic. He should have known better.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend Sylvia spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis); and contending with a bizarre cast of local characters, including “Half-Dead Fred” and the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Tarawa (a British drunkard who’s never written a poem in his life).

With The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Maarten Troost has delivered one of the most original, rip-roaringly funny travelogues in years—one that will leave you thankful for staples of American civilization such as coffee, regular showers, and tabloid news, and that will provide the ultimate vicarious adventure.
I recently discovered a new podcast, Books on the Nightstand, and this was the first of the books mentioned there that I picked up. The magic words? That people who liked Bill Bryson would enjoy this book. So did I? Did I ever!

The basic plot is that the narrator's girlfriend gets a job running an NGO in Tarawa, a tiny island in Kiribati, in the South Pacific, and they both move over there. There's no big overarching plot, just Troost's daily life and his adventures in Tarawa, which is not your ideal tropical paradise.

The book is a bit slow to get started. I thought we wallowed in the ever-present Kiribati shit on the reefs for a little too long. I liked it well enough in those first sections, but didn't feel compelled to pick it up after putting it down. But then when it got properly started I loved it, and ripped through the second half.

Troost is a great narrator. He's got a very appealingly deadpan, self-deprecating sense of humour, and I laughed out loud often. I giggled like crazy while reading the chapter on Maarten going mad wanting to know about the Clinton sex scandal, desperately trying to find a broadcast on his shortwave radio, hearing only random details, and then spending days and days wandering about the significance of cigars and stained dresses. I was half amused, half horrified with the chapter of dogs on Tarawa. And I loved the islanders' fondness for the Macarena.

Even through that, though, you can see his frustration with the most unsavoury features of life in Tarawa, including the ineptness and dishonesty of the politicians. He clearly cares about the people he's met and befriended in Tarawa, and his admiration for them shines through, even when he thinks they're nuts.



Darlynne 29 May 2012 at 17:23  

I've always wondered about this book, particularly as it seemed like something I would enjoy. Thanks for the review.

Rosario 30 May 2012 at 06:23  

Oh, the title is perfect to make you wonder, isn't it? :-)

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