Sharp-eyed followers of my posts will have realised I have a thing about maps, real as well as fictional, and any that are a kind of halfway house too. In addition they may have noted that a few of my reviews have been as much about islands as they’ve been about lands.
In fact I even considered what I might include as my Desert Island Books, should I ever be cast ashore on a sea-girt piece of earth with a climate which didn’t rot the binding, curl the pages, or fade the print.
I was curious about which islands I’d actually visited on this blog, and which if any I’d be happy to be a castaway on. So here is a rapid tour of a selection of some of them, some of which you may have sojourned on yourselves, and I shall end with an attempt to settle on my ideal. (Links will mostly take you to my reviews.)
What set me going was my recent read of Georges Simenon’s My Friend Maigret which was set in the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles. A real place, as I discovered, which sounded idyllic — were it not for the tourists who even in the mid 20th century were arriving in ferry loads. This story reminded me that Agatha Christie set two of her crime novels on islands reminiscent of Burgh Island off the Devon coast where she was in fact residing at the time. Evil Under the Sun was most like Burgh Island with its Art Deco Hotel — where we’ve enjoyed afternoon tea — but And Then There Were None was more sinister, which rather put me off; also Burgh Island itself, though frequently cut off from the mainland by the tide, isn’t much isolated.
Another real island appears in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, namely Dominica in the Caribbean where the author grew up. In the novel the first Mrs Rochester finds married life is as humid and oppressive as the weather, and this matches her worsening mental health. Further north the New England island of Nantucket was purloined by both Joan Aiken for her Wolves Chronicle Night Birds on Nantucket and by Otto Coontz for The Shapeshifters. Both novels captured a sense of otherness that Nantucket appears to have and which even Herman Melville indicated in Moby Dick.
Aiken also had her doughty heroine Dido Twite visit the Maluku archipelago (in disguised form as the Dice and Spice Islands) for the episode in her alternative history saga she entitled Limbo Lodge. In this instalment, set on the fictional island of Aratu, she also alluded to Emily and Anne Brontë’s imaginary Pacific islands of Gondal and Gaaldine, populated by Angrians who’d migrated here from a West Africa dominated by their siblings Branwell and Charlotte’s colonists.
Co-written by another pair of siblings, John and Carole Barrowman’s Hollow Earth is set on the island of Great Cumbrae off the west coast of Scotland, reached from the port of Largs. This supernatural horror tale for teens has a Lovecraftian vibe to it, very different from that I sensed on the island (here called Auchinmurn) which we’d visited half a century ago. I should also mention the speculative novel The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke which I read some decades ago: this involved in the author repositioning the island of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Serendip, Ceylon, and Taprobane) down on the equator so that it could become the ‘ground floor’ of a space elevator.
Diana Wynne Jones’s posthumous novel, The Islands of Chaldea, also takes us to real places — this time Britain and Ireland — but reinvents them as four separate islands (based on Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England) in a parallel world of magic. But not all fictional islands are based firmly on known locations, as we’ll now see.
Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children took inspiration from legendary fairy islands off the coast of Wales (like Grassholm) for its principal setting, Cairnholm. On the other hand Enid Blyton’s entirely fictional Kirrin Island featured in her Famous Five series, beginning with Five on a Treasure Island, with its ruined castle, beach, coves and tunnels. Its title doubtless took inspiration from R L Stevenson’s Treasure Island which appears to be somewhere in the Caribbean, or possibly near the Amazon estuary. Also in the Caribbean — or possibly not — is Prospero’s Island from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest which drew on reports of the ill-fated Virginia colony but which transposed the action to Caliban’s isle.
The Hattifatteners Island appears in Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson; this, we assume, must be in the Gulf of Finland and was surely inspired by the islands Jansson was familiar with from her sailing expeditions, the kinds she describes in semi-fictional form in her adult novels such as The Summer Book. Just now I’ve temporarily laid aside Zoë Gilbert’s Folk but will soon be returning to Neverness, an island set somewhere in the Irish Sea or off the coast of Scotland (though it matters not where). Here surrealism, folklore and magic realism overlap in a dreamlike collection of fables, very different but not dissimilar to Jansson’s Moomins’ existence. The island’s name recalls J M Barrie’s Neverland in Peter Pan, populated by Lost Boys and Red Indians, and visited by pirates, mermaids, a crocodile and, of course, the Darling children.
So far I’ve mentioned individual islands, isolated from their neighbours — and I’m aware of course that the word ‘isolate’ derives from the Italian isola, ‘isle’, just as ‘insulate’ comes from the Latin for island, insula. Doubtless these solitary patches of earth rising above the sea owe a debt, however slight, to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe on which the protagonist survived for years, a bit like Michaël Dudok de Wit’s unnamed castaway in the Studio Ghibli animation The Red Turtle. I’ve also steered clear of aits, eyots and crannogs, fresh water islands in rivers and lakes, the likes of which Arthur Ransome’s Swallow and Amazons might have visited. But I mustn’t neglect archipelagos, those groups of islands which are neighbours to each other.
C S Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader took Prince Caspian and his passengers on an island-hopping trip east, but their disembarkations were mostly on isolated lands or minor island groups (perhaps taking their cue from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Charles Kingsley had done something similar with the places visited by Tom in The Water-Babies but these had a more Bunyanesque feel to them.
Meanwhile Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago features in several standalone novels such as The Adjacent and The Gradual, but visiting them is a complicated matter involving time dilation and disorientation. In fact Priest has a collection of stories actually entitled Dream Archipelago.
Perhaps then the most famous fictions about archipelagos are Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea tales beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea: here lie various places in relatively close proximity, islands like Gont, Havnor and Roke, along with several outliers. As much as, if not more than, the islets, islands and archipelagos mentioned above, Earthsea’s lands have the feel of physical entities, such that the reader can sense their climates, terrain and atmosphere as though one were actually there.
For sure, I could add more examples but I’ll call a halt for now having made, I think, my point about the ubiquity of islands in so much fiction. Do I have a favourite place I would want to be? Hard to say, but taking a leaf out of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children I rather fancy the myyhical island of Gwales off the Pembrokeshire coast where, in times past, a group of legendary heroes were feasted and entertained in style for eighty years by the severed head of the giant Bendigeidfrân, Brân the Blessed — until somebody opened a forbidden door. A fairy Elysium it might be, with a mild climate like Tennyson’s Avilion, but in disturbed times such as ours ’tis a destination devoutly to be wished for.
Do you have any favourite stories about islands, particular some which I’ve not included here? I’d be pleased to hear about them!