While we were away last week in Paris for the Marathon, I finished The Islanders, a novel by one of my favorite authors, Christopher Priest.
Well, actually, I find it hard to call it a novel. It is novel certainly, but a novel? To call it so might imply that it has some kind of plot and a protagonist who changes and learns throughout the story. Instead The Islanders is something way more.
First of all, it is structured as a gazetteer, a guidebook to the Dream Archipelago, a belt of islands that circles the girth of an Earth-like planet, with a continent to the North and one to the South. So, science fiction then? Or fantasy? Maybe. The islands described in the gazetteer are arranged in alphabetic order from Aay, also known in the local patois as Island of Winds, to Yannet, known as Dark Green or Sir, depending on the local patois you believe or follow. There is a foreword by a Chaster Kammeston who professes to not know much about the Dream Archipelago – he’s never left the island he was born on – but who warns the reader that what they read may not in fact be true. We are not only in a dream archipelago but an unreliable one. As with Priest’s previous work (The Affirmation, The Separation, The Prestige, and so on), we learn very quickly to not take what we’re told as gospel, but only as a guide to what’s happening and happened.
Although Kammeston invites us to use the gazetteer as a reference, dipping into it randomly, he actually recommends that we read it from A to Z. Some of the entries are very literal, describing the island in question geographically and noting its primary weather systems and ocean currents. We’re given information about the local currency and places to visit on the island. Some entries provide a partial history about the place and mention various notable people who were born there or who moved there. The same names start cropping up, we make note of them and start to see connections. Some entries are stories about the island told by narrators who may, or may not, be believable. The themes and personalities in those stories appear elsewhere. Sometimes the stories told about people are negated by those same people later. There’s a murder mystery about the death of a great mime called Commis, and we get the same story told through four or five different viewpoints (but which is true? All? Any?). There’s a great love affair and suddenly we notice that the book’s dedication is to one of the lovers (the other being Kammeston himself). There’s an embedded discussion about what art means and about the artists who produce it (one of the characters is known for drilling tunnels through mountains and installing baffles to produce a kind of natural organ using the prevailing winds – we see her appearing throughout the book). There’s horror and comedy and one of the most terrifying insects invented: the dreaded thryme.
Fans of Priest’s other work will no doubt see previous story threads reappear and be examined further. There are twins (or at least people who look remarkably alike); magicians; unreliable narrators and their memories; a reality that is a little misty and dreamlike, fuzzy. One of the great motifs Priest returns to often and does so here with great effect is to invite us to consider who wrote the book. The simple answer I suppose is Kammeston, despite his protestations to the contrary, although one of the entries does have him dying (but some of the other entries imply that he’s not being exactly truthful anyway). Priest also explores a new theme here: glass, about which we’re invited to ponder on its ability to kill, to contain, to protect, and to modify and subvert reality. There are references to other Priestly stories and novels (including – brazenly almost – The Affirmation itself), although you don’t have to have read them to appreciate the book.
All in all then, an extremely thoughtful and frankly bizarre book. It’s one I shall return to in the future to get even more enjoyment and insights.