Review: The Islanders

It should not come as a surprise when I say that I enjoyed Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. It’s a book that could have been written with me in mind: a gazetteer of a fictional, fantastical and fundamentally unmappable archipelago that’s also the elliptical story of a murder? Yes please!

And so: the Dream Archipelago, we’re told by the mysterious Chaster Kammerton, who writes the novel’s foreword, consists of an unspecified number of islands – at least twenty thousand, and almost certainly a lot more, each of which has its own customs, its own laws, its own currency. It cannot be mapped, and travel is haphazard and slow, because of “temporal distortion”. It is caught between the warring nations of the north and south continents – despite its Covenant of Neutrality, the effects of those wars frequently spill over into the islands themselves. It is, in sum, a liminal place, a borderland, never one thing or the other.

The Islanders, meanwhile, takes the form of a gazetteer of these islands, as I’ve said; that is, it purports to describe each island rationally, objectively, even scientifically, looking at the geography of each island, the tourist attractions, the currency, the laws. Some of the entries, however, have very little to do with the particular qualities of the island they purport to describe; instead, there’s a short story about someone living on the island, or otherwise connected to it. These apparently unrelated short stories – whose very presence serves to disturb the self-avowed objective rationality of the text – move slowly into place as you read, building up the story of a murder.

The tension the novel generates, or rather makes visible, between the scientific impulse to categorise and describe and the essentially uncategorisable, unknowable nature of everyday human experience reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I also love and which is long overdue a re-read. It’s a novel that asks its readers to work for meaning – to make implicit connections to work out the “truth” behind the surface. It’s also – necessarily – beautifully structured: each piece of information you get, however irrelevant or incidental it seems at first, becomes vital to building the whole picture.

I find it particularly suggestive that both novels – Nabokov’s and Priest’s – prominently feature artists. In The Islanders, most of the named characters, who crop up across many of the short stories and the more straightforwardly “factual” ones, are artists of one sort or another: novelists, writers on social reform, landscape artists, magicians. And many of them operate on the wrong side of the law – for repressive laws, shadowy government agencies, official secrets crop up again and again throughout the novel, again generating an uneasy tension between the official, “scientific” version of the truth and whatever it is that might actually be going on. An admittedly reductive analysis of The Islanders might posit that the artists are seeking to represent the actual lived experience of the islanders, while those in authority are protecting an “official” version of a multifarious “truth”.

That’s a lot of quotation marks for one post; but that’s also the kind of novel The Islanders is. It disturbs notions of textual authority in a way that’s deeply satisfying, emotionally as well as intellectually. It isn’t, strictly speaking, doing anything that’s particularly new (Pale Fire does pretty much everything The Islanders does), but it does do it well. And, c’mon. A fictional gazetteer? Be still my ever-geeky heart.

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