“The Folding Cliffs“ by W.S. Merwin


Merwin, W. S. The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative of 19th-Century Hawaii. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Book Review, by Kate Dunning

Normally the endorsement blurbs on the covers of books are little more than exaggerated marketing. But when Ted Hughes says, of Merwin’s book length narrative, “The Folding Cliffs is a masterpiece—a truly original masterpiece on a very big scale. I could not put it down, and read it with a mixture of amazement and admiration that went on growing to the last page,” the reader understands that there is simply no other way of describing the experience of reading this work. The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative of 19th-Century Hawaii engages complicated questions of cultural exchange, language, illness, spirituality, and relationships with the natural world, among many other things.

The basic premise of the narrative is the encounter between the American government and the natives of Hawaii as the U.S. government seeks to control leprosy by arresting those with the disease and quarantining them without telling their families when, if ever, they will return. The disease does not affect the non-natives, and yet it is the non-natives’ fear that removes from the hands of the Hawaiians any right to decide the fate of “the lepers.” One of the aspects of the narrative that makes it so compelling is the way that Merwin, through his breathtaking poetic language, intertwines the macro-history of Hawaii, its language, its culture, its struggles, with the micro-experiences of a particular family and its community. I highly recommend The Folding Cliffs as a beautiful and simultaneously engaging experience.