Five by Five Books #5: “The Islanders” (2011) by Christopher Priest

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? The Islanders is written in the form of a travel guide to a vast, equatorial, globe-encircling chain of islands called the Dream Archipelago. The names, shapes, histories, locations, economies, and politics of the Archipelago’s islands are elusive and amorphous, defying ready mapping or simple narrative description. Several key characters (a mime, an artist, a social reformer, a reporter, a roustabout, a writer, a stage manager) appear sporadically throughout the text, on a variety of islands, and over wide spans of time, their stories occasionally over-lapping, all advancing through hints and off-hand references and casual mentions. The Dream Archipelago is, by law, ostensibly a peaceful buffer zone between two warring polar superpowers, though both powers wield significant influence and shape the narrative through varying degrees of skullduggery or outright aggression. An apparently unreliable narrator further complicates the proceedings, whoever he or she might be.

Who wrote it? Christopher Priest is a British novelist who cites H.G. Wells as a formative influence; he has served since 2006 as a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society. His books and short fiction have won multiple British Science Fiction Association Awards, and he has also been nominated for or won various Hugo, Campbell, James Tait Black, Clarke and World Fantasy Awards throughout his career. He is probably best known in the U.S. for his novel, The Prestige (1995), which was adapted into a highly acclaimed and successful film of the same name by Christopher Nolan, with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in the lead roles. He has also written various film tie-ins and television screenplays under pseudonyms. The Dream Archipelago has been a recurring motif/location in his fiction, first appearing in 1981’s The Affirmation, where a possibly schizophrenic protagonist may or may not be preparing to undergo an operation that will make him immortal, a theme that again appears in The Islanders.

When and where did I read it? This is a relatively new one to me, since I just read it this past May, during the trip that Marcia and I took to Fort Lauderdale, Florida around my birthday. I was not familiar with Christopher Priest when this book showed up on the “Recommended for You” panel of my Kindle, probably because I had recently read the first two books of Jeff Vandermeer’s somewhat thematically similar (in terms of its narrative ambiguity) Southern Reach Trilogy. The unmitigated weirdness of The Islanders‘s premise appealed to me, so despite my general reluctance to buy new books by unknown (to me) authors, I went ahead and downloaded it, and was absolutely delighted by my choice. I finished the book over a couple of days (it was addictive reading), and the lovely tropical opulence of our rental digs at Villa Amorosa provided an absolutely perfect setting and ambiance for the woozy literary magic that Priest concocts in The Islanders. I even dreamed about the Dream Archipelago, further cementing my sense that reading The Islanders was a very resonant, provocative, and haunting (in the good sense of the word) experience for me.

Why do I like it? I have always loved entering and experiencing well-created, fully-realized, wholly inhabitable literary worlds, in books, in video games, in movies, in online communities, anywhere. The Dream Archipelago is one of the most vibrant and rich such literary worlds that I’ve ever experienced, even though the descriptions that Priest offers of it are nebulous, shifting, and certainly lacking in the structural rigidity and formality of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. That being said, some of the details placed before a reader are sublime: the explanations of tunneling as an art form, or of a particularly nasty toxic critter, or of the denizens haunting a cluster of ancient towers, or of the activities of the polar superpowers’ drones, and so many other scenes, all of which are beautifully elucidated, and instantly memorable. Very little is ever explicitly explained in The Islanders; instead, the reader gains knowledge and perspective pebble by pebble, bit by bit, hint by hint, picking up a lot of information over time, while not actually realizing how much has been learned. The key recurring characters in the novel are also delightfully well-realized, and the often unexpected interactions between them provide some of the novels’ sharpest “a-ha!” moments, where revelation seems close at hand, though it almost always still slips through your fingers if you try to grab on to it too quickly or too hard. 

A five sentence sample text: (From Chaster Kammeston’s Introductory) “Here is a book about islands and islanders, full of information and facts, a great deal I know nothing about, and even more on which I had opinions without substance. People too: some of them I knew personally, or had heard about, and now rather late in the days have learned something about them. There is so much out there, so many islands to discover, while I am familiar with but one of them. I was born on the island where I live now and where I am writing these words, I have never stepped off the island, and I expect never to do so before I die. If there were a book about only my home island I should be uniquely equipped to introduce it, but for quite other reasons I would then not agree to do so.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

CLICK ON THE COVER OF THE ISLANDERS BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY:

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