The Islanders: a review

Some advice on reading The Islanders, by Christopher Priest.

1. Read the introduction.

No, really. Even if you’re an “I never read the introduction” kinda person, read this introduction. It’s part of the story, and without it you are likely to be terrible confused, because…

2. Don’t think this is a novel.

At least, not in the conventional, linear (or even non-linear) plot sense. Things happen, but not in any sort of chronological order. This is, as the introduction suggests, more of a gazette: an introduction to a few dozen of the islands which make up the Dream Archipelago. It’s a mixture of straight Lonely Planet-style description and suggestions for tourists, along with police investigations, letters, wills, and a couple of short story narratives that appear to have snuck in under the radar.

3. You don’t have to have read the short story “The Dream Archipelago.”

I haven’t.

4. Pay close attention to the names of characters.

Seriously. Really close attention. Because while there is not exactly a narrative as such, there are several recurring characters who build up around themselves quite the biography as they visit and interact with different islands; and one fairly substantial murder mystery, which also keeps getting mentioned in relation to different people and different islands. If you don’t keep track of names you won’t experience the maddening joy of getting another jigsaw piece that may or may not fit into one of the several puzzles you have on the go.

5. Be prepared for a lot of wind.

Breezes, zephyrs, howling gales; humid, dry, grit- or snow-filled; wind plays a really significant part in many of the descriptions of the islands. They all have their own names, often different ones from island to island.

6. Accept that each island has its own language (or several).

And before you dismiss this as ridiculous, remember that it is estimated that Papua New Guinea – a country of just some 462, 840km2 – has “over 850 indigenous languages” (I’m not afraid to use Wikipedia when it’s expedient and unlikely to be controversial). So why shouldn’t separate islands have different languages and cultures?

7. Take nothing for granted.

Not even time and space. The Dream Archipelago isn’t a dream – there’s no waking up – but there are definitely hints that time, especially, is something that might just happen to other people. Just go with it. Enjoy the maddeningly slippery way in which Priest suggests new information that may or may not fit in with other information given earlier in the gazette.

8. People who should avoid this book include:

Those who are easily confused by occasional and slight reference to probably important characters; people just turn up when they are relevant to the island under discussion. They might have been born there, died there, visited there, made art there, been arrested there. And it might only be one sentence in the island’s entry.

Readers who really prefer a linear plot; because as mentioned above, there isn’t one. There was a murder once, on the island Cheoner, whose investigation and subsequent surrounding mystery provides the only thing close to a plot you’ll find; there are references to the people involved in the entries for maybe another six or seven islands, spread out over the course of the whole book. There are also biographical notes for four or five main characters also spread throughout the book, and they are sometimes contradictory but always interesting.

People who get seasick just by reading about the ocean: there are islands. There is island hopping. Some important things happen at sea.

The extremely insect-averse, because the thryme – a really, really nasty critter – has basically a whole entry about itself, and it keeps getting mentioned throughout.

9. People who may enjoy this book include:

Those who enjoy discussions about what actually constitutes art. Does boring a tunnel through a mountain count? Is there a point in creating art that no one, not even the artist, will ever see?

Readers who enjoy a good puzzle; because the whole book is a puzzle. Putting the pieces together about (for example) Dryd Bathurst’s life is a great deal of (sometimes conflicting) fun.

People who like islands. There are islands.

The seeker of innovation. I wouldn’t want to read book after book constructed in this manner, but it was certainly enthralling and intriguing to read this one.

10. Read this book.

Unless you’re completely and irreparably put off by the notion of the non-linear/possibly non-present plot, read this book. It’s a delight to read, the prose is enjoyable and varied from island to island, the ideas are stimulating, and the people as engaging and different as excellent pen-sketches can be. Read this book.

11 responses

  1. This sounds amazing. Is Priest an Italo Calvino fan? Sounds very Calvinoesque.

    1. I don’t know Calvino’s work, so I can’t comment! But possibly… and possibly I should now look out for work by Calvino…

      1. I recommend Invisible Cities and If On a Winters Night a Traveller. I’m sure they’re very different to the Priest but if you enjoy that kind of playfulness and inventiveness with narrative and setting…

        1. Added to my Goodreads TBR pile – thanks!

  2. […] Vorkosigan – Shards of Honor, Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold Alex: The Islanders, Christopher Priest Tansy: After the Apocalypse, by Maureen McHugh […]

  3. One of the misses for me of this book is that the islands don’t differentiate themselves enough. I never got that they had different cultures; they just seem like a bunch of places with different currencies and names for winds.

    My favourite chapter has to go to the island of the thyrmes – absolutely terrifying, if a little unrealistic from an ecological perspective. Definitely a unique book.

    1. Interesting. I thought that there was enough difference in culture to make it believable. And you are right, the thrymes island/story was remarkable.

  4. […] turned out not to be the book I thought I was reading. Having adored The Islanders, I thought I was getting an earlier novel set in the same place. Uh, no. This is a set of short […]

  5. […] me in mind of China Mieville’s The City and the City, and Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, both of which do a similar thing with inventing places that ring so amazingly true. The Priest is […]

  6. […] I realised as I read the last story that the collection as a whole rather put me in mind of Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. They have nothing in common in terms of themes or characters or setting, but there is a certain way […]

  7. […] books this reminded me of: Christopher Priest’s The Islanders because of the way the plot is gradually unveiled. Every story ever set on a tropical Venus. Kim […]

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