Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai'i - Susanna Moore

Susanna Moore is best known for her critically acclaimed novels—complex and compelling works like In the Cut and My Old Sweetheart. Now, Moore’s Light Years is a shimmering look at the early life of this cherished novelist. Taking the form of a Commonplace Book, it mixes reminiscences with passages from famous works of literature that were formative in her younger years. Born in Hawai’i at a time when the islands were separated from the U.S. mainland by five days’ ship travel, Moore was raised in a secluded paradise of water, light, and color. As a child she spent endless days holed up with a bundle of books while the sound of the ocean and the calls of her brothers and sister drifted toward her through the palm grove. All around her, Moore saw flashes of the ocean described in those pages: a force of kaleidoscopic beauty and romantic possibility, but with an undercurrent of unfathomable darkness. In Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i, she weaves reminiscences of her childhood with some of her favorite pieces of literature—excerpts from Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, Treasure Island, Kon-Tiki, To the Lighthouse, and many others.




Susanna Moore grew up in the 1950s and 60s on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Many locals considered her and her family "haole", a white & privileged family living in a fine home staffed with servants. Moore writes of attending cotillion classes at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Her mother struggled with mental illness and sadly passed away when Moore was only 12 years old.


That's about the gist of what I learned from this super short (less than 200 pages) "memoir" of hers. I've heard of Susanna Moore as a writer but have not picked up any of her novels yet. I stumbled upon this at a discount sale one day and was intrigued mainly because my grandmother lived in Hawaii for a time (also where she met my grandfather) and her stories of island life always captured my attention as a child (have yet to see it for myself though). I was hoping for something similar from this book.


So that's where we run into the confusion with the excerpts. Moore writes, "I began to keep a journal about the sea by copying passages from the books I was reading..." but that's about the only explanation the reader gets for what follows: the large majority of this book just being long excerpts of OTHER people's work. I didn't have an issue with that by itself so much, but more with the fact that the excerpts have little to no preface. Other than many of them having the "sea" theme, there's not much explained as to WHAT about these fragments of books was so compelling to her. What about these passages specifically spoke to her? I would have been interested in those stories but no such luck. I ended up flipping past these pages as much of it was stuff I've already read over the course of my life.


That these excerpts make up the bulk of the book is what annoyed me so, rather than Moore sharing more of her OWN stories. If I pick up this book, I don't want an anthology of others, I want to hear about HER experiences, as the title promises. There is a little bit of that here, just not enough. Though there is a portion that I found interesting where she discusses the issue of racism running throughout the islands that has spanned for generations.


"It was a hierarchical, snobbish, and quietly racist society... there was a fairly unconscious racism all around us..." but then it turns weird because in some ways her words starts to sound as if she's trying to make it seem okay because you know, it's just how it was...


Yeah, in short... not all that impressed with this. Felt a bit like a lazy, thrown-together excuse for a book.