There are places in the world that need no introduction – the mere sound of their names automatically triggers postcard images. Paris happens to be one; Tahiti is another. Both destinations make people dream, one for its man-made beauty, the glorious monuments and handsome buildings, the other for its natural splendour and lush landscape. Everyone from Bougainville to Brando has raved about Tahiti, calling it the new Utopia, Garden of Eden, Isle of Love, among other superlatives. So the reaction when we announced our move to the celebrated Pacific island was perhaps unsurprising. ‘From Paris to Paradise’ exclaimed one friend enviously.
The setting for our new life truly was idyllic. We chose to live not on Tahiti but on neighbouring Mo’orea, only thirty minutes by fast ferry from Pape’ete and less developed and congested than the main island. From our front door we could gaze at the spectacular spires of mountains, surging up from the interior. Round the back, just metres from the porch where we mostly lived, the turquoise lagoon spread out from the shoreline like a silk petticoat. I could go on and on about this wondrous womb of water, where I began each day with an early swim. City girl that I was, the submarine world was foreign and thrilling to me: the wiggling webs of refracted light; the euphoric greens and blues of the lagoon; the spotted eagle rays that glided by, shy and graceful.
Yet All Good Things is not, I’m afraid, a tale of paradise found. If in places it might seem to fan the myth of Tahiti, other parts of the book might be said to debunk it – though in fact I didn’t set out to do either. As in Almost French, my memoir about life in Paris, my aim was to look beyond the fantasy. Real life is never postcard-perfect. I wanted to celebrate all that I loved about our new home while also being honest about the particular challenges I faced there – challenges that stemmed as much from the private dreams and hopes I’d brought with me as the reality of living on a small, remote island.
There’s an element of escape in every big move and ours to Tahiti – the ultimate escapists’ destination, after all – was no different. The opportunity arrived out of the blue in the form of a job offer for my husband, Frédéric. At a different point of our lives we might not even have considered it. But an unwelcome poignancy had cast a shadow over our carefree Paris existence. Years of infertility treatment had produced nothing but a string of failures and we were beginning to despair of ever having a child. Tahiti offered us a fresh start – a new professional challenge for Frédéric, a chance for me to write the novel I’d been researching in an environment with few distractions. And perhaps, we dared hope but not say aloud, a beautiful, unpolluted, fertile island would be an ideal place to fall pregnant naturally.
It’s as old as the hills, this idea of islands as earthly paradise, and it helps explain why Tahiti was hailed as a dream come true the moment the first Europeans set eyes on it. Yet once we were settled on Mo’orea another enduring perception of islands sprang to mind. From my writing desk I’d stare at the sparkling lagoon and the inky ocean beyond the reef, uplifted by the sight even as I felt trapped by it. From that tiny coin of land amid Earth’s grandest ocean, the rest of the world seemed like another planet. ‘Every island is a potential Alcatraz’, writes Thurston Clarke in Searching for Paradise.
This paradise-prison dichotomy heightened my daily experience on Mo’orea, adding drama and meaning to aspects of ordinary life. The full moons that rolled runners of gold light across the lagoon were the hugest, most marvellous moons I’d ever seen; the kind generosity of our Polynesian neighbours seemed boundless. I’d never known time to be as elastic as during those long hours between my early morning swim and Frédéric’s return from work. My own sense of inner emptiness expanded too.
When people comment how lucky I am to have lived in exotic places, I can only agree, though not for the reasons they might imagine. I didn’t find paradise on the island, I didn’t find serenity among the coconut palms. Yet perhaps the exuberant glare of the lagoon did throw light on some essential truths. Tu te retrouves face à toi-même sur un île, people warned me when we first arrived. You come face to face with yourself on an island. It’s true, you do. I’m grateful now for the way things came to a head. Unexpectedly, indirectly, the island helped my dream come true.