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The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative of 19th-century Hawaii Hardcover – September 29, 1998


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New Adult Fiction by Rainbow Rowell
Acclaimed author Rainbow Rowell's latest book, Landline, offers a poignant, humorous look at relationships and marriage. Learn more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 29, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375401482
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375401480
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.6 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,236,054 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Since distinguished poet and translator Merwin (The Lice; The Vixen) moved to Maui almost two decades ago, Hawaiian flora, fauna and history have pervaded his work. His sprawling new novel-in-verse (based on historical facts) unfolds a complicated, suspenseful, true story of natives, colonials, rebels and leprosy in 19th-century Kaua'i, spread over seven chapters of 40 one-page sections. Merwin's cast includes his native Hawaiian heroes, Ko'olau and his wife (later widow), Pi'ilani; their relatives (a crew that's hard to sort out); the authoritative and admirable Judge Kauai; an iconoclastic cleric, George Rowell; Father Valdemar Knudsen, Ko'olau's employer; and a complement of ill-meaning missionaries and colonialists. The plot, when it gets underway, involves resistance to the cruel government policy of forcibly segregrating Hawaiians diagnosed with leprosy. Stricken with "the separating sickness," Ko'olau, Pi'ilani and their son join an Edenic, illegal settlement of lepers in a remote valley. Into Ko'olau's and Pi'ilani's sad adventures, Merwin splices earlier Hawaiian history and legend, from creation myths to the overthrow of the last native rulers. Readers must acclimate themselves to the fluently ongoing, unpunctuated lines and extended sentences in which Merwin casts all his verse. But after a dozen pages, the six- and seven-beat lines seem surprisingly flexible and appropriate. The fast-moving chapters try hard and well to combine the Homeric grandeur of orally transmitted epics, ecological and historical information ("the landed chiefs' sole remaining wealth was the land/ which no one but they could own") and the simpler pleasures of a suspenseful plot. The rapt attention typical of Merwin's short poems mixes comfortably here with the pathos and characterization of a contemporary realist novel: "she stopped and looked back at the valley she had left/ it looked new and shining in an age that never changed/ and farther away than she had ever seen it."
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

A deep sense of place infuses Merwin's sensual poetry, and it, too, is the impetus behind this remarkably dramatic book-length poem. Merwin has rekindled a long-dormant form to present a fictionalized yet fact-based tale of the tragic history of Hawaii, his home, a wondrous scattering of islands calamitously vulnerable to violation. In the opening scenes, Merwin conjures the glistening web of the pristine Hawaiian landscape, naming trees and birds, stones and water, flowers and clouds. His long, lovely lines roll in and out like ocean waves as he slowly adds human beings to the scene and introduces his main characters, Pi'ilani and Ko'olau, who marry and have a son and then witness the diabolical conquest of their beloved island by strange men in huge boats. The men are full of lust and bring iron, cattle, and disease. As Merwin recounts the horrific consequences of their invasion, particularly their treatment of lepers as criminals, his language turns hard, and his lines snap and slash like the lashes of a whip, incising into our collective conscience the painful truth about a place we like to think of as paradise. Donna Seaman

More About the Author

W.S. Merwin is the 17th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry of the United States. He is the author of over fifty books of poetry, prose, and translations. He has earned every major literary prize, most recently the National Book Award for 'Migration: New and Selected Poems' and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for 'The Shadow of Sirius.' He lives in Hawaii where he raises endangered palm trees.

Customer Reviews

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I have read it twice now, the first time silently, the second out loud.
David D. Derauf
I am also a book editor and publisher, and would like to offer some suggestions should the book ever be reprinted or issued in a new edition.
Fernando Peñalosa
Neverthless, this is a great artistic achievement that deserves to be read and (hopefully) imitated.
Zeldock

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Fernando Peñalosa on November 5, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I have just finished reading this delightful book. I am also a book editor and publisher, and would like to offer some suggestions should the book ever be reprinted or issued in a new edition. I am very aware of how errors creep in, and I have made a large number of bloopers myself, so no one is perfect, but I would hope a publisher with the vintage prestige of Knopf would make every effort to employ knowledgeable proofreaders. The book is very inconsistent in the spelling of Hawaiian words, with a large number of 'okina (apostrophes) and kahako (macrons) left out. There is at least one spelling error, the name of the newspaper Ka Leo o ka Lahui incorrectly spelled Ka Leo o ka Lauhui ("Voice of the Nation"). The list of personal and geograpnic names at the end is very useful, but far from complete, and it is very difficult to follow some of the text not knowing who some of these people or places are, or having to look back further in the text to identify them. Some of these may be misspelled, I don't know, although I am familiar with the island of Kaua'i (sometimes spelled Kauai in the book), its history and geography. I am also a friend of Frances Frazier, who very kindly recommended the book to me. I hope you give this book wide publicity, and that you have very successful sales. Best wishes,
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 6, 1998
Format: Hardcover
I had to read this book from the first time I sat with it and read the first page or two in a North Andover Mass bookshop. Well, I'm back in Philadelphia, and I have read it. Liked it so much I have started Merwin's book of short novellas on France:"The Lost Upland", a totally different book, but carrying Merwin's same great ability to paint beautifully fine pictures of place - and, in the case of "The Lost Upland" of people too. "The Folding Cliffs" is magnificent. A one of a kind, as far as I am concerned. Merwin's sense of place and mood is outstanding - I did not, however, get as deep a sense for his people - although the characters were clearly present - and I sympathised with / despised them in their respective roles. This book is a magnificent epic. Definitely to be read aloud. Such a bold undertaking in format, form and substance. This book will occupy a reserved spot on my bookshelf and in my memory for years. Pick it up and read the first few pages - you'll have to finish it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Zeldock on October 1, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This ambitious work tells the true story of one family's resistance to the wrong-headed efforts to quarantine victims of Hansen's disease (i.e., leprosy) on the Hawaiian islands. The narrative itself is surprisingly involving, with three-dimensional characters, beautiful scene painting, and propulsive drama. Merwin's poetry here takes a roughly anapestic form, somewhat similar in sound to Longfellow's "Evangeline" meter. (And "The Folding Cliffs" has many other interesting parallels with that 19th-century classic.) The language is at times too prosy for my taste, and Merwin's aversion to punctuation often gives the tale a breathless quality that fights against the narrative tempo. Neverthless, this is a great artistic achievement that deserves to be read and (hopefully) imitated.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 2, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Here is a story about Hawaii that attempts to capture the ancient oral tradition of 'oli chants within the confines of Euro-linguistics. The vast differences between Hawaiian and English are issues which Merwin confronted by creating a narrative poem; he drew from Western literature's own past--Homeric poems--for inspiration and guidance. Yet, he adds his modern touch (the missing punctuation marks). I found this a fascinating approach, and I appreciated his effort. The story of Pi'ilani and Ko'olau expresses the love and gentleness of the people, the communal values present in the Hawaiian culture, and the complicated social and political relationships responsible for the Hansen's disease mess. Merwin honored the truth without compromising his creativity. There are a few sections early in the novel, and a few near the end that seem redundant and tedious. I struggled through these parts, though early on I was rewarded with a beautifully wrought account of the creation of the islands and its people; it echoed the Kumulipo or ancient Hawaiian creation myth. Still, the slow parts detracted from the novel's readability; thus, I give it three stars.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Bob Saigh on December 8, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I agree with most of the comments in the reviews to date (five, prior to mine). Some patience is required for reading this book. At times it's somewhat "foreign" (and unless you're Hawaiian and/or know Hawaii well, you're probably entitled to feel strange), but its language is uniquely rich and its construction and thought are stunningly insightful, very rewarding. Don't be surprised if you're rather inarticulate after reading this book. It's complicated, worth re-reading, and certainly a recommendation for adventurous readers.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 17, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Merwin's poetic style touches upon Hawaiian chant and upon fine western literature. Put together, this recounting of the legend of Ko`olau the Leper and his loyal wife Pi`ilani may become a masterpiece of Hawaiian literature.
Our Kaua`i kupuna, Frances Frazier, with whom Merwin consulted, first translated the story in 1973 and published it in 1987.
"Merwin called me after reading my translation and told me how thrilled he had been with the story. We became good friends," says Frazier.
"Simply marvelous," she calls the book, but at first a bit unusual for modern readers.
"At first I was taken aback because there wasn't a bit of punctuation. I'd never seen anything like that," she says.
Frazier says the fictionalized account of the historical event correctly weaves together the characters and events.
Frazier's translation of "Pi`ilani's Lament," an exquisite example of Hawaiian soliloquy, appears on the web.
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