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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 19, 2006

'Orchids' captures Hawai'i's people

By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Staff Writer

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Who: Ian MacMillan

When: 7:30 p.m. April 5, preceded by reception at 7

Were: UH Manoa Institute of Geophysics Auditorium

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"In fiction, everything has a kind of reason," explains a young writer in Ian MacMillan's new novel, "The Seven Orchids," speaking of how symbolic elements in a story subtly convey the writer's ideas.

But in real life? Do things happen for a reason?

As this short novel opens, the protagonist Danielle Baker sees little reason in life. At 23, she drifts through her days in Kaunakakai, buoyed by nips of gin, waiting for the afternoon when it's time to join a team of misfits practicing for the Na Wahine O Ke Kai canoe race. Even paddling doesn't make much sense the Maui coach is in charge of who gets to race, and most of these women won't make the cut. But it's something to do while she contemplates the future: Will she can she quit drinking? Make a life? It's the challenge her father has given her: Leave her drug-dealer boyfriend, spend time thinking things through in the shabby country house he owns on Moloka'i.

Then Danielle finds something in a shed behind the house: a row of wizened orchids barely alive in the shadows of the caved-in roof. And under the orchids, a koa canoe. The canoe has a tragic story behind it, as she soon learns from her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Teruya.

There's a certain predictability to what happens next: The team will coalesce around the canoe and paddle it in the race. The archetypal story of thwarted love will change their lives.

But predictability in the broad outlines is no flaw in a novel; it can even be quite satisfying.

What makes the book work is MacMillan's ability to hear people think. As in his previous Hawai'i-based works, "The Red Wind" (Mutual, 1998) and "The Braid" (Mutual, 2005), MacMillan's characters are made up of sharp edges and secrets, stories they'd like to forget, flaws and failings. Though one or two border on stereotype (a pair of valley girls who fall in love with a couple of local boyz), most of the people in this book resemble the rest of us complex, difficult, disappointing, ceaselessly interesting and sometimes pleasantly surprising.

This novel has its share of flaws. At times, it reads as though MacMillan was in a hurry cramming backstory into long, awkwardly expressed paragraphs, using the same word in succeeding sentences, choosing words in conversation that don't seem to fit the character, using pidgin poorly at times. But none of these draw much away from the book's quality and value.

MacMillan, who teaches fiction at the University of Hawai'i, writes with empathy that is never sentimentality. All Danielle's shortcomings are here: her alcoholic blackouts, her hidden bottles, her denial cleverly cloaked by a seeming lack thereof (her nickname on the team is The Drunk). But also here is a sense that, in being far less than perfect, in trying and failing, Danielle is being human.

In a powerful passage, MacMillan sums up the human dilemma: "All of them, Danielle concluded, were nothing but frail packages of bones and flesh trying to stay on one side of a line ... and their chances were dim, because they were frail and weak and because ... they had only a few years to experiment with being alive and circumstances made it such that they would (fail), over and over again, until they were dead."

In humans, there is always hope, or potential. Which keeps things interesting.

MacMillan keeps the book's end interesting by leaving us and Danielle wondering. She is asking why there are seven orchids. She is asking what spin her writer friend is going to put on the story she has just lived. And she is standing alone in shallow water, watching a school of very small fish in the very big pond that is the Pacific.