(2011) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £12,99, hrdbk, 352pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07004-2
Given that The Islanders is Christopher Priest’s first book in eight years, I would suspect that there are many people out there who may not have come across his work, and might know him better – if at all - as the author of The Prestige, filmed by Christopher Nolan and telling cinematically of the rivalry between two stage magicians played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman and the extraordinary lengths they will go to outdo each other. That unfamiliarity with Priest’s work might be a slight problem for the reader of The Islanders if they want to fully enjoy the novel, although using the word “enjoy” to describe the experience of reading The Islanders is perhaps misleading. I say that because of two reasons – the first being the actual style of writing itself, which is dry and ironic in places, and not an easy read. The second is the structure of the book, and the lack of what could be called an actual plot coupled with a distinct lack of narrative drive in sharp contrast to Clive Barker’s 'Arabat' series which also takes place across a group of islands. The Islanders could be likened to Nabokov’s masterpiece Pale Fire where the real story is revealed through a series of footnotes to the epic poem which makes up the book.
Here, Priest has written something akin to a travelogue, a guide book to the islands, and instead of characterisation, and action and dialogue, the reader is treated to descriptions about the islands that make up his “Dream Archipelago” including weather systems, a fair dollop about the history of people and places and information that would be handy for any potential sailors who want to come visit, but there are no maps available, or rather no maps you can trust. As in a dream, the information that we gleam from the narrative is by turns dream-like, fragmented, clear, hazy, misleading and sometimes nightmarish. Wake up, and it is already a fading memory that can easily be twisted into something it is not, and things are not helped right from the start with an introduction from novelist Chaster Kammeston who denies any responsibility for what is to follow.
Life on the islands is familiar, but there are gods and monsters present, including those who can live forever thanks to science. Most of all there has been a murder – the death of a mime artist, killed on stage by a falling sheet of glass and what follows may be an attempt – through letters and accounts – to solve that crime. Think of Jennifer Egan’s recent A Visit from the Goon Squad which is really a novel of inter-connected short stories, sometimes carrying on the baton from the previous one, or telling a story where a character who figured large now plays a minor role. In The Islanders characters crop up in the accounts and testimony of others. “Don’t believe a word” as Phil Lynott once sang, or “could it be magic” because Priest has populated his tale with islands that are riddled with tunnels, or immortals, or strange musical instruments, and monstrous, horrible insects. He’s also having fun as those familiar with his earlier work may recognise characters such as Moylita Kainea, a writer who has appeared in previous stories whose writing shares the same titles as some of Priest’s own work. I suspect The Islanders is a novel that readers will either love or hate, and depending on which side of the fence they are, will either devour it greedily, or may well struggle to finish it.
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