When I was a kid, one of my (embarrassing) pastimes was creating imaginary worlds. I would draw maps of strange, exotic lands on sheets of A4 paper, sketching out coastlines, rivers, mountains and valleys. I would conjure up kingdoms and protectorates and grant them territories vast and small. I would dot the land with cities, ruins and strange geological formations ripe for exploring. I would write chronologies of historical events and detail the biographies of the notables of those worlds.
The Islanders reads very much like Priest’s own attempt to instantiate his own imaginary fantasy world onto the published page. It’s not quite a novel in the traditional sense, but more like a collection of loose vignettes that, when strung together, give a semblance of the world that Priest has created.
In this world, there is the Dream Archipelago: an uncountable collection of islands splayed across a vast planet-encircling sea. The book is written like a gazette of these islands, as if written for the inquisitive traveler. Each chapter of the book provides an overview and an evocative vignette that describes or embodies a single island in this archipelago.
The book arrays its islands in alphabetical order. This authorial choice belays a sense of chronology. The meta-narrative jumps physically and temporally, and the reader must piece the disparate story elements together like a jigsaw puzzle. There is no overarching single narrative, but there are many smaller narratives that make up a sense of the world as a whole.
The book follows a number of recurring characters, whose life stories are played out in successions of interconnected but non-contiguous chapters. One is a chronicle of an itinerant artist’s life that invites the reader to trace his journey from island to island. Another is a whodunit murder mystery, told from multiple perspectives from different, possibly unreliable, narrators. Some stories are self-contained but evocative. One particularly gripping narrative is a dispassionate account of a scientific expedition that discovers a new species of virulent, extremely dangerous insects. Another narrative details the tempestuous and often violent relationship between two diametrically opposed artists (one digs tunnels to shape entire islands into giant wind instruments; the other fills up holes to create perfect and smooth surfaces). Many of these mini-stories have no discernible bearing on the others, but they’re there, and they provide texture and flavour to the world Priest has created.
As a whole, The Islanders feels like a romp through an interesting world, like reading a particularly exciting travel guide. But I was expecting a bit more, an overarching arc. However, by the book’s end, none was apparent, which was a bit of a letdown after the promise shown in the stories so far. The book feels incomplete without some narrative element that ties it all together. Other than the fact that it is set in a single universe and features some common story arcs, The Islanders doesn’t have a unifying factor to give it some overall structure. It almost reads like a short story collection.
Furthermore, Priest peppers his narrative with chronological and narrative inconsistencies. It seems like he wanted to evoke a sense of uncertainty and irreality, as is common in his works. But the weirdness – the mirroring, the double identities, the narrative past the grave stuff (the ostensible narrator of the collection is a character in one of the stories that has passed on) – is never really explained, nor does it have much in the way of thematic or narrative significance. It is just there to confuse. It is there to engender a tone, a mood of ambiguity for its own sake. Perhaps to punctuate the dreamlike, hopscotch quality of the world – with its temporal vortices and ever-shifting islands with their similar names and histories. To telegraph to us that this is a world born out of a daydream or an idle doodle. Which is probably exactly what Priest intended in the first place.
All in all, while I enjoyed this novel, it leaves me with a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction, because I was waiting for a big reveal, a big unifier, and never getting on .
I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 thrymes