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The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 208-211

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Melal: A Novel of the Pacific, by Robert Barclay. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8248-2591-8; viii + 300 pages, map, text art. Paper, US$14.95.

Barclay is a first-time novelist who simply got it right. Melal is an archaic Marshallese word: playground of demons; not habitable by people. As a member of the editorial board of the University of Hawai'i Press, I first learned of Barclay's work when his manuscript was evaluated forpublication. In her review of the manuscript, Teresia Teaiwa, Pacific Islands Studies, Victoria University at Wellington, wrote that Melal is a "rare and precious gift to all humanity." Byron Bender, a University of Hawai'i linguist who has devoted much of his career to the study of Marshallese language and culture, described Melal as "an extraordinary work that defies categorization . . . a political and social treatise disguised as a novel."

Teaiwa and Bender are not alone in their assessments. Barclay has been named as the recipient of the Harriet GoldsberryAward in Hawai'i andwas a finalist for the prestigious 2002 Kiriyama Prize for fiction. (Two of Barclay's competitors for the award were Booker Prize finalists.) Barnes and Nobel selected Melal for its Discover Great New Writers program and has promoted the book in its stores throughout the United States. Melal has received critical acclaim in Honolulu's leading daily and weekly newspapers. Author Patricia Grace's enthusiastic endorsement on the novel's back cover concludes with the note that Melal is "an important book."

Barclay is now a doctoral student and lecturer in the English department of the University of Hawai'i, and Melal served as the thesis for his MA degree in that department's creative-writing program. Barclay first became acquainted with the Marshall Islands as a nine-year-old boy when his father took a job at the US missile range facility on Kwajalein Atoll in the early 1970s. Kwajalein is one of the twenty-nine coral atolls and five single islands that make up the Marshalls. Many of the islands, including Kwajalein, were devastated when American forces invaded and defeated the Japanese during World War II. After [End Page 208] the war, Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in the northern Marshalls were used as sites for over sixty nuclear tests between 1946 and 1954. While the people of the two atolls were removed from their ancestral homelands, radiation from the nuclear tests contaminated other inhabited northern atolls, and their peoples continue to suffer the consequences. Kwajalein was a support base for the nuclear program, and when that program came to an end, the atoll became an essential component in America's "Star Wars" strategic defense initiative. Long-range missiles originating from California are routinely intercepted and destroyed over Kwajalein by defensive missiles launched from the atoll.

The American community numbers well over 4,000 and is located on the atoll's largest island, Kwajalein Island. It has all the amenities—and more—of an affluent southern California suburb, complete with a well-watered golf course, movie theaters, swimming pools, lagoon-side marina, and well-stocked post exchanges. Barclay enjoyed a rather carefree boyhood of fishing and other water sports and diversions that accompanied never-ending summers. He left Kwajalein after high school and has returned numerous times for visits and a couple of yearlong stints of employment. Barclay began writing short stories based on his experiences on Kwajalein, and they eventually evolved into the novel at hand.

Melal covers the events of a single action-packed day, Good Friday of 1981. The main Marshallese characters are the widower Rujen Keju and his two sons, teenage Jebro (named after the king of the stars and Marshallese folk hero) and twelve-year-old Nuke (shorthand for the American nuclear tests in the Marshalls). An apparent victim of radiological fallout, Rujen's deceased wife is buried near the family's house on Ebeye Island in Kwajalein Atoll.

Rujen is the highest-ranking Marshallese employee at the sewage plant on Kwajalein Island. Jebro...