by Christopher Priest
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Twins, doubles and doppelgangers often take center stage in the novels of Christopher Priest, and his narrators are often not entirely reliable. Fans who enjoy these aspects of Priest’s work are sure to love his new novel, The Islanders, as the author foregoes a single unreliable narrator for an entirely unreliable narrative.
The Islanders is presented as a gazetteer, or guidebook, of the Dream Archipelago, a world-spanning chain of islands with fantastical properties. The forward of the book—as presented by the fictional writer Chaster Kammeston—points out the futility of attempting to compile any kind of reliable guide to the Dream Archipelago.
Localized temporal and gravitational disturbances make it impossible to map the islands from the air; existing sea charts are outdated and incomplete; and in addition to their official names, all the islands have various local names, oftentimes similar to other islands half a world away. In the resulting confusion many travelers headed for one island often unwittingly find themselves arriving on another.
The forward provides fair warning for what lies ahead, and a degree of patience is certainly necessary for any reader determined to embark on this bizarre tour of the Dream Archipelago.
True to its conceit, the book starts out with a few very dry, workmanlike island entries. But as it progresses, Priest peppers in a string of recurring protagonists: an infamous painter, a prominent social reformer, a crusading journalist, stage performers, underground installation artists and renowned authors—Kammeston among them—who all play prominent roles in the slipstream narratives that eventually manifest.
A good portion of the novel concerns itself with the mysterious murder of a celebrated mime artist known as Commis. But Priest deliberately includes confusing and contradictory accounts of events, people and islands, leaving it up to readers to parse the real story. Now apply this to the rest of the novel’s disparate, non-linear plotlines and you get some idea of the reading experience that awaits.
For all this, The Islanders isn’t a particularly difficult read. It will likely test your patience far more than your comprehension because many of the earlier entries are somewhat tedious. And while the book eventually becomes more engaging, and Priest’s writing is often very humorous and effective, he never brings it all together. Instead, he heaps more questions on top of the ones he’s already raised, and readers who like their stories wrapped in a neat little bow will be left wanting.
But for anyone familiar with Priest’s earlier work, The Islanders may represent something of a culmination. At least one of its main characters and the Dream Archipelago itself have been featured in his earlier books and stories. Indulgent Priest fans will undoubtedly enjoy these further adventures, confounding though they may be. But first-timers would be better off starting with Priest’s excellent novel The Prestige.
Not that there aren’t a few gems in the mix. Most notable is the entry describing the Aubrac Chain of islands, which hosts an ass-kickingly deadly native insect called the thyrme. And the entry on Seevl (patois name Dead Tower) delves eerily and wonderfully into one of the more unsettling metaphysical threats to be found in the Dream Archipelago. But both of these entries could easily stand alone as excellent short stories and do little to bolster the novel’s cohesiveness.
The narrative subterfuge in The Islanders is obviously deliberate, however, and there is no question that Priest wrote the exact book he intended to—one that trips through the dream aspect of the Dream Archipelago, where facts, logic and linear reasoning need not apply.
In his forward to The Islanders, the fictional Kammeston warns that many of the entries are not strictly factual and of the islanders themselves writes:
“Our palate of emotional colors is the islands themselves and the mysterious sea channels that churn between them. We relish our sea breezes, our regular monsoons, the banks of piling clouds that dramatize the seascapes, the sudden squalls, the color of the light reflecting from the dazzling sea, the lazy heat, the currents and the tides and the unexplained gales, and on the whole prefer not to know whence they have come, nor whither they are destined.”
In the end, The Islanders leaves you feeling very much like an islander yourself: a bit detached from the fictional world in which you find yourself, a bit confused by what you have learned about it, and unable to drum up anything more than the most passing interest in getting to the bottom of it all.