Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: 'The Island at the End of the World' by Sam Taylor

Sam Taylor (1970- )
The Island at the End of the World (2009)

215 pages

Set in the western US, in the immediate future, this novel tells the story of a man who lives with his three young children in an ark moored on an island at the edge of a great expanse of water, emptiness stretching to the horizon. The man had built the ark as he watched the natural world and civilization collapse around him, leaving him fearful for the safety and future of his family. The four of them have been living in their ark for seven years, and have built a small paradise where they tend a variety of crops, raise chickens for eggs and meat, and trap wild rabbits.

At night they sing songs the father has written and taught them of the flood that drowned the world (taking there mother with it), of the evil and corruption that existed in the time before the flood and that has now been cleansed from the earth, and how they came to their island paradise. The songs are an odd combination of old children's rhymes and modern rock songs, with new lyrics --- lyrics that recall the songs of ancient peoples telling their origin histories; the young son, in his Pidgin English, tells of one song: "I love this song it all ways makes me happy an shured. Pa rote it the day we rived at the I-land…
Morning has broken like the first morning
The great wave has broken like the first wave
Be cus the rain came an drownd all the sinners
We live on this I-land an we are all saved

The old world wer dying but now we are living
The sins of our fathers are all washt a way
Be cus the rain came an kild all the liars
We no only truth now like on the first day

As the story opens, the father is watching through his binoculars with increasing dread as a stranger approaches the island paradise he has found and created for his children. For the father this stranger represents all the evil and corruption that were left behind, and so threatens the innocence of his children and their peaceful lives on the island.

To give more details than these few from the opening pages would be to spoil a riveting story --- one that is part suspense and part psychological drama. The 200 or so pages go by quickly as the mystery of how the family came to their paradise, where the stranger has come from and what it means about the world that remains outside pulls the reader from page to page.

The chapters alternate between first the father and his son, and then the father and his older daughter. The isolation of the family is re-enforced by the author through the voice of the son, who was only a baby when the family came to the island, and who spells his words as they sound: "The airs not cold on my I-lids like befor its warm an sweet the first blossoms mixt up with pine an grass an stove smells all sharp from the night fallen rain." It takes a few pages to get used to the style, but once accustomed to reading the sons chapters 'aloud', it is little trouble to understand him.

The technique seems a bit of a stretch given that it's made clear in the story that the children do read, and so should be able to spell at least the simplest words correctly, but I found it effective at establishing the distance the family has come from their past to their new life, and the focus the father has had on creating a simple life in tune with nature for them. (The children express their ages, for example, by the number of new moons they have been alive.) And this is ultimately the thoughtful and thought-provoking point of the novel: what is paradise and is it acceptable for one person to impose their view of paradise, however well-intentioned, on others --- even a father on his children.

Other reviews / information:
by Nicholas Tucker on The Independent web site

by Patrick Ness on The Guardian web site

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