A layered, immersive experience, Liam Speechlay
March 30, 2022
Who are we? It’s the burning question on the lips of every teenager missing someone significant in their story. Telesa: The Covenant Keeper by Lani Wendt Young follows Leila Folger as her enduring heart embarks on a quest for truth, love, and fulfilment of her destiny. Mixing Samoan culture and mythology into her previously palagi (white) upbringing, she learns the truth of her past through a novel of twists galore.
The story begins as an eighteen-year-old Leila, fresh out of high school, comes to grips with the shock death of her father to cancer. Having only a grumpy grandma left to her name in the States, she decides to pack her bags for Samoa in search of the mother she has never known. Her attitude to elders is clearly shown in this. Loving of her father as she was, going to Samoa broke her father’s dying wish that “whatever you do, don’t go back there, don’t let them send for you.” Leila had also taken glee in the trip as a way to annoy her grandmother! Although a victory at the time, it soon proves differently as she moves into her Uncle and Aunty’s strict Samoan household where she can only leave for church and school – yes, that’s right, back to school. It is only the beginning of the shock her Samoan culture will bring.
Samoa College is a well-placed location nestled into the book by the author that allows the reader to learn about Samoan identity and Leila’s relationships as the book progresses – these concepts often intertwined. For example, on the first day of school, Leila is taken aback by differences in the quality of educational facility – although “the best school in Samoa”, the peeling paint and puddles inside drew a picture differing to her all-girls private school back in DC. The question, though, is does all this really matter? As time passes, she picks up good friends, like Simone, a fa’afafine (a feminine boy) and Daniel (her boyfriend from time to time). Although the physical state of the school is worse, her mental state is vastly improved – it isn’t a pristine school in which your emotions are whitewashed away. It shows how looks can be deceiving, and we shouldn’t make of something by its appearance but by its heart. The people Leila finds at Samoa College prove its heart is good.
However, Leila is no closer to any answers about her long-lost mother. is it odd that she has dreams of a strange woman standing in the bush? Why does she need to visit a swimming hole each night to escape an unbearable heat no one else can feel? Is there a reason why Daniel is attracted to this same very spot?
This brings the reader to Daniel and the special position he holds in the novel. It cannot be denied that Leila and Daniel have a special connection to each other, even after a turbulent, awkward beginning I won’t spoil. How far this reaches is there for the reader to discover. He brings a sense of meaning to her life that doesn’t appear to have been present beforehand. Leila is immediately physically attracted to Daniel, but it’s not for this reason they have the bond, rather, it’s a kind of spiritual – ‘we are meant for each other’ – type of love. Leila ponders, “There had never been a person that I could just sit and BE with. Without the need to talk. Fill the gaps. For some reason, there didn’t seem to be any gaps between me and this strange boy full of contradictions.”
I appreciated the literary design of the novel. The use of mythology means the prologue stays mysterious and cryptic until much later in the novel where the passage is written again now in context, as a link. It draws you in, keeps you wondering and looking for the next bombshell. The words are weird in a cool way – “I looked up, eyes glistening with molten tears” and “I am drowning in a sea of fiery despair” both given amazingly with zero context and I loved it. The language through metaphors, personification, and variable sentence structures conveys a change in atmosphere that matches how Leila feels. It becomes noticeable when key moments of the novel come up simply by the language used. I liken it to almost a heightened feeling of her soul, exposed for the reader to try to figure out. At times, key passages almost seemed biblical – like the book of Revelations in a Samoan mythological context.
The book, no doubt, is wonderfully filled with twists to its plot. At various points, the author could have chosen a cut the book short, but instead adds another layer, making the novel more intriguing. I thank her for that. It is a very well written book – the only fault I can find is the odd grammatical error on the part of the editor.
I will certainly be reading the next book in the series. It is a wonderful journey, being immersed in the world of Leila, and an experience I would recommend to you all. My friend pointed out that I wouldn’t be the pick for a reader of romance, a correct assessment I must say. It fills me with joy to proclaim my perspective has now been opened, thanks to the contents of Telesa: The Covenant Keeper.
- Liam is 15 and lives in Christchurch.