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January 17, 2012

The Islanders - Christopher Priest

The Islanders by Christopher Priest pretends to be a guide to the islands in The Dream Archipelago. A travel guide for would-be explorers of the thousands of islands which band the world of the story. Of course, this being Christopher Priest, nothing is quite what it seems. There's an introduction from a (as then) unknown writer and then the first few guide entries are functional descriptions of the islands: geography, climate, currency and confusingly the multiple names for the island depending on the local patois. So far, so intriguing.

The entries progress to different types, not just the quick functional entries but other kinds of stories. There are first person accounts, letters, third person accounts. As the entries progress a common history and story of the islands emerges. Certain characters reappear, their stories told from different perspectives, often with contradicting facts. Sometimes I read an entry and then doubted my memory as something seemed to be wrong. If it was any other writer you might assume that it was an error, but with Priest you can be sure it's intentional, seeding doubt and adding differing sides to every tale.

The writing varies with the style of the entry, from the functional descriptions to some wonderful poetic descriptions of the islands and the characters feelings. Sometimes it felt like dancing, quick, quick, slow.

There are a lot of themes, they swirl around, in and out.  The two that stand though are love and art, with several stories of romantic entanglements and love lost, stories of people searching for who they want to be, of art and the sacrifices for it, of the circumstances that created great art, often sad. There's a lot to think about, it's not plot driven, but there are plots within the stories and a greater arc for each of the characters. You could describe the novel as a collection of short stories, but if so you'd have to qualify it as highly interconnected stories that form a greater whole and you still wouldn't really be giving a true picture. It's more than a collection, it is a novel, because all the parts build on each other, clarifying (or confusing) the picture, creating something more. 

The novel is also knowing and self-referential. There's a point where an artists novels are described, and that one of them was not successful because it doesn't have a traditional plot. There's a mention of Priests own novel The Affirmation, said to be written by one of the characters. Not done in an irritating manner, but instead leaving me to wonder what else I'd missed, and what other layers there were to be peeled back.

If you've enjoyed Christopher Priest's other books you will definitely enjoy The Islanders. If you're after a straight-ahead-thriller, this isn't it, but if you want an intoxicating, slowly revealed puzzle of a novel, with true heart and soul, you'll like it. I liked it a lot.