Review: The Islanders by Christopher Priest

The Islanders by Christopher Priest – Gollancz – Novel: Science Fiction – Buy it here – Our Rating: Four Pipes

A tale of murder, artistic rivalry, and literary trickery; a Chinese puzzle of a novel where nothing is quite what it seems; a narrator whose agenda is artful and subtle; a narrative that pulls you in and plays an elegant game with you. The Dream Archipelago is a vast network of islands. The names of the islands are different depending on who you talk to, their very locations seem to twist and shift. Some islands have been sculpted into vast musical instruments, others are home to lethal creatures, others the playground for high society. Hot winds blow across the archipelago and a war fought between two distant continents is played out across its waters. The Islanders serves both as an untrustworthy but enticing guide to the islands; an intriguing, multi-layered tale of a murder; and the suspect legacy of its appealing but definitely untrustworthy narrator. It shows Christopher Priest at the height of his powers and illustrates his undiminished power to dazzle.

Let me admit, I’m biased. I’ve been a fan of Christopher Priest for years, ever since I read The Prestige in 2007. Since then, I’ve devoured as many of his books as I could find–not an easy task, considering very little of his work is in print in the US–including Inverted World, The Affirmation, and The Glamour. Without fail, Priest’s work always took my breath away, from his flawless prose to his complex, thought-provoking plot-work. He seems to cross genres effortlessly, constructing bizarre realities his characters take for granted. His work is often legerdemain; misdirection; now you see it, now you don’t. Yet, at the end of each story, Priest rewards the reader with a stunning conclusion that explains everything, simply but beautifully.

Needless to say, I expect mindfucks from Christopher Priest. The Islanders, however, redefines the meaning of mindfuckery.

The Islanders is as difficult to explain as it is to comprehend. The book calls itself a gazetteer, a guide to the vast network of islands known as the Dream Archipelago. Each chapter, ranging in length from two to thirty pages, details one island. Most often, these entries take the form of a travel guide; they describe the geography, weather, history, and attractions of the island, often providing tips for tourists. Every few islands, however, the structure shifts, and the entry takes the form of a police transcript, a newspaper article, a diary entry. In these entries, the islands become personal. The pseudo-historical figures mentioned in the drier entries become real characters. We begin to know them, in fragments, hopelessly scrambled. Artists, writers, and academics; liars, lovers, and murderers.

As the book progresses, connections reveal themselves, between characters and islands alike. As a reader, it was a treat to notice the little things, like realizing the woman to whom the book is dedicated is really the unreliable narrator’s erstwhile lover, or catching a fleeting glimpse of a Lazarus procedure described at length in The Affirmation. These moments, however, are as rare as they are rewarding. In this book, nothing is certain. The narrator is unreliable, his motive unclear. There are contradictions, lies, literary legerdemain.

By no means is this an easy read. The rich prose I’ve come to associate with Priest is all but absent from the book. The entries read like the travel guide they profess to be; that is to say, they are dry and contain far too many atmospheric details in which I have little interest, such as the myriad winds of the Dream Archipelago. Then, just when these entries become too much, Priest throws in one of the narrative chapters, and the reader is reminded of Priest’s skill. On a whole, this novel is memory overload. There are too many islands that go by too many names and too many characters that go too many places (and nowhere all at once) to keep in one’s memory all at once. I toyed with the idea of making a chart, or five charts perhaps, to keep track of movement through islands and time, but by the time I realized I needed such a chart, it was far too late.

As difficult as it is to explain or comprehend The Islanders, I’m finding it far more difficult to explain how I feel about it.

Weeks later, I’m still thinking about this book, and, while that might suggest it errs on the side of too opaque, I’m biased. If I don’t understand a book at first glance, my first instinct is to assume it’s good. Like any Priest novel, it’s certainly a work of legerdemain. Certainly, the more you read, the more you begin to understand. Unlike the other Priest novels I’ve read, however, there is no moment of revelation when everything kaleidoscopes, quite suddenly, into painful focus and you are confronted with the truth of the bizarre reality. It isn’t an easy read, or even a particularly pleasant one. But it stays with you, simmering and brooding and threatening new revelations. Weeks later, I’m still considering the sum of this book. Even as I write this review, I find myself rethinking everything I thought I’d figured out.

So here’s the thing. If someone asked me what The Islanders is about, I wouldn’t know how to answer. Ostensibly, as a self-proclaimed gazetteer, it is a book about islands. The title, however, suggests that the book is not about the islands so much as the people who inhabit them. This is closer to the truth, but by no means all of it. The Islanders is also about relationships–about art–about how people interact with the world, the environment, and everyone else in it. In the end, I find myself coming back to the tagline on the jacket, “All men are islands,” and I find myself wondering if it really could be as beautifully simple as that.

-Julie

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